“When It Changed”
by Joanna Russ
“Of all forms of literature, science fiction is the only one that deals primarily and basically with change,” Isaac Asimov wrote in his introduction to the anthology of award-winning stories for 1972, Nebula Award Stories Eight. “It is not the function of science fiction to predict the actual future, but rather to resent alternate futures of any degree of probability. . . ”
And then, of course, Dr. Asimov, sometimes science fiction does end up predicting the future, as Joanna Russ did in the Nebula Award winning short story that was among those included in in that anthology.
“When It Changed” tells the story of an Earth-colonized planet, Whileaway. Six hundred years earlier, disaster struck Whileaway. First, it lost communication with the home planet. Then a mysterious plague killed all of the men on Whileaway. Instead of succumbing to despair, the planet’s survivors, all women, rebuilt their society, including finding new methods of reproduction.
“We had a big initial gene pool,” local police chief Janet Evason tells new arrivals to their planet after centuries of isolation, “we had been chosen for extreme intelligence, we had a high technology and a large remaining population. . . ”
Her hearers are unimpressed. They are astronauts from Earth, the first men to set foot on Whileaway in generations. And they won’t be the last. “Did you know that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth?” he asks Janet. “I believe in instincts, even in Man, and I can’t think that . . .you don’t feel somehow what even you must miss. There is only half a species here. Men must come back to Whileaway.”
There’s no way to hold back this now unwelcome future, Janet knows, no way to protect her wife Katy and their daughters. “I doubt very much that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth. I do not like to think of myself mocked, of Katy deferred to as if she were weak, of (our) children cheated of their full humanity. . . to the not-very-interesting curiosa of the human race.”
What would Janet (or her alter ego Joanna Russ) think of a time where, in some places at least, women are free to marry other women and have children together? Or even of a world where women could take control of a genre once thought of as a male preserve.
"In the America in which she came of age,” reads her 2011 obituary in The New York Times, “Ms. Russ was triply disenfranchised: as a woman, a lesbian and an author of genre fiction who earned her living amid the pomp of university English departments.”
She was only the second woman to win a Nebula Award for excellence in science fiction short stories, and women would languish in the minority of Nebula Award winners for decades more. Until this year. Right, there was the U.S. Supreme Court case recognizing the right of same sex couples to marry. And, there’s the announcement of the 2015 Nebula Awards where “with the exception of the Best Novel award, women swept the slate.”
But don’t stop being angry yet, Joanna Russ. There’s still the controversy of the upcoming Hugo Awards, where a backlash by the Sad/Rabid Puppies, science fiction fandom’s equivalent of the tea party, looms against any writing smacking of diversity.Who will win this round? Stay tuned for word August 22 from the 73rd Worldcon in Spokane, Washington.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction adventures with Arthur C. Clarke’s Nebula Award-winning “A Meeting with Medusa.”)