Souls by Russ, Joanna, 1982

Souls by Russ, Joanna

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Science fiction in the 1970's was going through one of those strange periods that it has found itself in a few times in its history. You know the kind, because we are going through another one right now. A period where there is no guiding light, and many authors were just kind of flailing around, trying to find something big to write about. It was between the New Wave of the 1960's and the Heinleinian resurgence and Cyberpunk era of the 1980's. But there was one active literary movement back then: Feminism. It was the time of ERA and feminist ideals, and many of those found excellent expression in SF. Joanna Russ is one of my favorite authors from that era.

Today's novella, Souls was published a bit later than the 1970's, in 1982. It is about an abbey of Roman Catholics that was beset by a Viking river expedition. The Abbey was rich, and the abbess in charge of the place, Radegunde, knew that is she put up a fight everyone in the abbey would be killed or enslaved. Knowing, of course, that the ship would carry nothing but men Radegunde approached them first and reminded them of their mothers. She scared them also by reading their minds and telling them facts about themselves. Once she had their attention, she turned to look for the commander. The Norsemen did not have a leader, so Radegunde made a deal with the Viking who all the others looked up to. She told Thornvald that if they left the people alone, they could have all of the treasure. The Vikings agreed at first, but as soon as they were let inside the abbey they welched and used force to take slaves and women as well as the treasure. Thornvald did what he could do to protect Radegunde and her foster child, a young boy named Little Boy News. Radegunde still worried that everyone would be taken so she made another deal with Thorvald. She agreed to be his slave and would travel the world with him as a companion if he would urge the others leave as many of the people as possible in the abbey. Again he agreed, but before the long ship could depart, Radegunde was called home. Radegunde was an anthropologist from some other universe. She had used a mental power to keep Thornvald under her control, and did what she could to save the abbey. But she was really waiting for her co-workers to open a rift in space time so that she could get home. When they did so she jumped through, but before doing so addled Thronvald's brains and "cursed" him with a peaceful nature.

The narrative here is a little bit lacking, but the messages were pretty clear. I found myself more than once saying "so what?" about the story, but that was probably just me. I am not too much for fantasy, and right up until the very end this one was pretty much a pure fantasy. For example, the setting and level of technology seemed to place this story before the scientific era, and the things that Radagunde could do, cure wounds and control the minds of men were depicted as magical powers, not technological ones. Only when the portal opened at the end of the story, which showed a bright room with computers on the other side, was it clear that Radagunde had access to some technology. But what the story was really about was not so much a battle of the sexes as a demonstration of the sources of feminine power. Consider this passage:

"Tell me, Thorvald, what do you men want from us women?"

"To be talked to death," said he, and I could see there was some anger in him still, but he was turning it to play also.

The Abbess laughed in delight. "Very witty!" she said, springing to her feel and brushing the leaves off her skirt. "You are a very clever man, Torvald. I beg your pardon, Thorvald. I keep forgetting. But as to what men want from women, if you asked the young men, they would only wink and dig one another in the ribs, but that is only how they deceive themselves. That is only body calling to body. they want something quite different and they want it so much that it frightens them. So they pretend it is anything and everything else, pleasure, comfort, a servant in the home. Do you know what it is that they want?"

"What?" said Thorvald.

"The mother," said Radegunde, "as women do too; we all want the mother. When I walked before you on the riverbank yesterday, I was playing the mother. Now you did nothing, for you are no young fool, but I knew that sooner or later one of you, so tormented by his longing that he would hate me for it, would reveal himself. And so he did: Thorfinn, with his thoughts all mixed up between witches and grannies and what not. I knew I could frighten him, and through him, most of you. That was the beginning of my bargaining. You Norse have too much of the father in your country and not enough mother; that is hwy you die so well and kill other folks so well - and live so very, very badly.

I think what Russ really wanted to do here was give a story that was solely about the repression of women and the tactics that they use to survive and thrive. Here the survival tool was the use of the witch/mother dichotomy, if there is such a thing. The tool that she used with most of the Norsemen was fear; fear of a powerful witch who reminded them of their mother. But with the older and wiser Thorvald she played as a foil to his apathy. She got in interested in living again not so much with sex as with the promise of companionship. It was interesting to watch, especially in the hands of a capable master like Russ.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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