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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Reading the Unreadable #6: The Female Man by Joanna Russ

To be honest, I'm not even sure why this one made the list of most challenging books.  The site I pulled this information from claims that it's due to the change in narrator and shifts in time and place, but honestly, it sounds like the compiler of this list just hadn't read much science fiction.  While the changes in viewpoint may be a bit confusing for a beginning reader, there's enough context clues to make it clear who's narrating, and the overarching themes of the book are much more important than the setting.
The work itself is a feminist examination of gender roles as seen from the perspective of characters from parallel earths, each with a vastly different cultural development.  As such, it is less rabid than, say, Thomas Berger's "Regiment of Women" but more aggressive than Octavia Butler's "Dawn".  Given that, perhaps the most challenging thing about this novel is it's approach to looking at gender norms.  Unfortunately, looking at it from the perspective of a somewhat liberal-minded reader in the 21st Century makes the ideas in this book seem somewhat dated.  While I'm sure the problems that Russ attempts to discuss here still exist in some forms, she writes from a milieu that no longer exists as such (at least not in Western society), and that makes the novel's approach less immediately relevant.  Not invalid, mind you, but rather separated from the modern context. 
To me, that's a shame, because the form of this novel is a fantastic one for an entertaining examination of a philosophical and cultural problem.  One of my favorite tropes in science fiction is the idea of the examination of modern life from the alien perspective, and Russ accomplishes that rather neatly while managing to make human beings themselves the aliens to their own world...or a form of it.  It's an approach that allows for a deep dive into the fallacies of culture and our perceptions of "how the world works".  This is a work that could stand to be updated to the modern context.  If ever there was an argument for rewriting a novel the same way we remake movies with new technology, this book is it.  Of course, I don't know that any other author could do Russ's voice justice without sounding like pastiche, and unfortunately, Ms. Russ passed away in 2011.  Perhaps a more current author like Nalo Hopkinson or N. K. Jemisin could get around to doing their own thing with this idea.  Perhaps they - or someone - already have; I haven't read enough to say for certain. 
All I know is that of all the books on this list so far, this is probably the one I would most recommend to other readers looking to expand their literary horizons a little.

Up next, "Being and Time" by Martin Heidegger.  This one promises to be a bit heavy, even for one with my philosophical bent.  According to Amazon, it's 610(!) pages, so I may see you back here by the end of the year.

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