Short Story Review: When It Changed by Joanna Russ

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I was reflecting back on speculative fiction and women author’s in particular and discovered Joanna Russ’s story of When it Changed, a winner of the 1972 Nebula Award for the Best Short Story. At the time of it’s writing not many women were writing speculative fiction and the treatment of women characters within science fiction depicted women in stereotypical fashion. Russ writes in the afterword,

“I have read Science Fiction stories about manless worlds before; they are either full of busty girls in wisps of chiffon who slink about writhing with lust (Keith Laumer wrote a charming, funny one called “The War with the Yukks”), or the women have set up a static, beelike society in imitation of some presumed primitive matriarchy. These stories are written by men. Why women who have been alone for generations should “instinctively” turn their sexual desires toward persons of whom they have only intellectual knowledge, or why female people are presumed to have an innate preference for Byzantine rigidity, I don’t know.”

Examples of cover images from the 1970’s reflecting those images.

Infinity_Cover   Fantastic_Universe_Cover   Fantastic_Novels_Cover   Forbidden_Planet_Cover

 

In response to these images and the writings of men, Joanna Russ and several other authors had begun presenting women in a different slant.

With this short story Russ begins to build her foundation to her future novel entitled, The Female Male she wrote in 1975 – examining women’s roles from different women narratives each coming from a different societal environment. At the time, considered groundbreaking and ambitious, expanding the science fiction genre and giving women a voice.

When it Changed is set on a world called Whileaway where a plague had wiped out men many generations ago. Yet, the planet was on a brink of change when a shipped arrived carrying male astronauts who begin to question Kate the narrator, asking her, “Where are all the people”? People referring to ‘men’.

The premise of the story evolves around the idea that a dual-society must exist to ensure the soundness of humanity. The male astronauts see themselves as the authority and the need to perpetuate the human race in order to succeed. This view is thrown into juxtapose against the females whom have existed on Whileaway for 6 generations without males. They have created an existence of duality amongst themselves, without the acknowledgement of males. They see the males as intruders, interlopers, a race that wants to invade and subjugate the females to a role, second cast to them.

The conflict extends with confusion as the males reassure the females that their “ordeal” is over, that “they” are here to rescue them from their poor existence. The females are initially bewildered and confused – not understanding ‘what’ they need rescuing from – their society was a way of life with no knowledge of what males are.

The story is relevant today, allowing us to question our preconceived ideas of gender, of roles – roles that are accepted in today’s society. It’s subtlety can be seen from the narrator’s viewpoint. Initially, the reader perceives the narrator as a male voice for they depict their wife by using the words, “his wife”. And its only later we realize that Janet the narrator is in actuality a female acting in the role of a perceived ‘male’ or the dual side of the wife.

It’s a great read, and allows the author to embrace our preconceived notions and during the 70’s, I can imagine the responses to Russ’ story were fast and furious. I hope you get a chance to read it.

  • Published in 1972 by Doubleday
  • Editedor: Harlan Ellison
  • ISBN: 0-575-04144-7

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