Over the next five months, I’m reading and reviewing ten pioneering works of science fiction written by women. This is my first pick. Stay tuned for more.
The Female Man is a science fiction novel about the interaction of four women from parallel universes, each with different gender roles. These women travel between their respective universes and meet each other. The character Joanna is a 1970s feminist and professor in our universe, Janet is an ambassador and every-woman from a planet called Whileaway without men, Jael is a comparative ethnologist and assassin from a universe where men and women are at war, and Jeannine is a 29 year-old struggling to find her independence in a great-depression era world similar to our own. Although The Female Man is powered by science fiction concepts — parallel universes, travel between them — its craft borrows little from science fiction tropes, sharing more in common with literary fiction in its delivery and its themes.
One major theme of The Female Man is that traits which are considered masculine in our universe are the result of nurture and not nature. In the penultimate chapter of the novel Jael reveals that the four protagonists are in some sense the same woman according to the theory of probability travel. Although their ages, names, personalities and experiences vary, this is an effect of their different circumstances alone. Russ’ choice of similar names for the protagonists causes a blending of identities from the onset of the novel foreshadowing the revelation. Russ disorients the reader through rapidly shifting the point of view and narrative style throughout the work, to allow the reader to come to the conclusion that the protagonists could be the same woman before it is revealed to be the case.
The novel is split into nine sections, with each with 5–18 subsections, subsections which range in length from a sentence fragment to pages. These subsections vary in topic focusing on the protagonists, the author, or even personifying the book itself. They vary from dialogue in the form of a play, to italicized stream of consciousness, to straightforward storytelling, to metafiction. Most jarring, the subsections vary in point of view, changing rapidly from first person, second person omniscient, third person limited. Often a protagonist narrates a scene involving another protagonist from the perspective of a disembodied entity that can move to any perspective within the scene. Rarely, the point of view changes from one protagonist to another mid-subsection without overt clues to the reader.
These shifting points of view create an uncertainty in the reader, with frequent ambiguity as to who exactly is speaking about whom. The ambiguity is sometimes, but not always, resolved in the course of reading. The short sections make the jarring point of view switches tenable, offering the reader a chance to reset and the author a chance to set out a new puzzle. Long before it is revealed that the protagonists are the same woman under different circumstances, the reader has felt it to be true, when, for example, they start a section in one protagonist’s point of view and seamlessly transition to another. A striking example of this is a section in which Jeannine observes with omniscient clarity Janet exploring Joanna’s universe.
I frequently found myself underlining passages of The Female Man, particularly those caricaturing sexism, writing “still relevant” in the margins. Joanna Russ ends The Female Man with a lament that the novel will become “quaint and old fashioned.” In a few instances, particularly in the treatment of transgender issues, it is antiquated and old fashioned, just as Russ predicted. But, on the whole, Russ’ prediction has yet to come to pass. The Whileaway universe, in which women are first class citizens is a while away, and until that day comes The Female Man remains disturbingly relevant more than forty years after its first printing.