R. Delany. The Order of "Chaos"
(Joanna Russ. And Chaos Died)
Pagetti. 25 Years of SF Criticism in Italy
Patrick Parrinder. Delany Inspects the Word-Beast (Samuel R. Delany. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and The
Robert M. Philmus. In Search of Orwell
(Robert A. Lee. Orwell's Fiction; Jeffrey and Valerie Meyers. George
Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism; Jeffrey Meyers, ed. George
Orwell: The Critical Heritage; Christopher Small. The Road to Miniluv: George
Orwell, the State and God; William Steinhoff. George Orwell and the Origins of
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Samuel R. Delany
The Order of "Chaos"
Joanna Russ. And
Chaos Died. With a new Introduction by Robert Silverberg. Boston:
Gregg Press, 1978. xi + 189 p. $10.
The first two pages of this hardcover reprint of And Chaos Died present the
protagonist, Jai Vedh, as a quietly despairing modern man with a nearly psychotic desire
to merge with the universe. Moreover, it is suggested that this essentially religious
desire is a response to the meaninglessness and homogeneity of every day life. There is a
vacuum inside him; and when, on a business trip in a spaceship that has taken him off the
surface of Old Earth ("on which every place was like every other place, " p. 9),
he senses the great vacuum of space itself about the ship, the real vacuum and the
psychological vacuum become confused. Propelled by his desire for mergence,
on the nineteenth day he threw himself against one of the portals, flattening himself
as if in immediate collapse, the little cousin he had lived with all his life become so
powerful in the vicinity of its big relative that he could not bear it. Everything was in
imminent collapse. He was found, taken to sick bay, and shot full of sedatives. They told
him, as he went under, that the space between the stars was full of light, full of matter
-- what was it someone had said, an atom in a cubic yard? -- and so not such a bad place
after all. He was filled with peace, stuffed with it, replete; the big cousin was
Then the ship exploded. (p. 10)
The place Jai Vedh comes to, along with the philistine captain of the exploded
spaceship, is the first of Russ's SF utopias. Noting the January 1970 publishing date on
the original edition, and thus inferring 1968/1969 as the most probable time of
composition, we may be tempted to read this particular utopia as a kind of arcadian
fall-out of that decade's ecological crusade. A more sensitive reader of SF will, however,
notice its sources in SF works that substantially predate that crusade: the nameless
planet of telepaths takes its form from Clarke's Lys (the more ruralized companion city to
mechanical Diaspar in The City and the Stars, 1953) and from the world in
Theodore Sturgeon's "The Touch of Your Hand" ( 1953). What characterizes this
particular SF image is not rural technology, but advanced technology hidden behind
a rural facade; not human communication in good faith, but ordinarily invisible communicational
pathways (some form of ESP); and it is always left and then returned to. (This pattern,
almost unchanged, is still present today in stories like John Varley's "The
Persistence of Vision," 1978.) What the inhabitants of Russ's "Lys" can
teach Jai Vedh to accomplish is precisely that merging he so longs for: moreover they can
straighten out the social-vacuum/ physical-vacuum paralogism around which his psychotic
episode in the spaceship was constituted. (Where are SF's Lacanian critics!?)
They can teach him to perceive, and influence, matter directly at a distance. The results
look very much like ESP. Health lies -- implicitly -- in merging with something (matter)
rather than nothing (vacuum). Jai Vedh's conquest of matter-at-a-distance makes playing
with vacuum simply a game: rescued from utopia and returning to Earth with his telepathic
mentor and love, Evne, he actually removes part of the ship's wall and exposes himself to
It's no big deal.
He is ready to face the social vacuum directly.
The social vacuum is manifested in individuals who, now that Jai's newly acquired ESP
allows him to look inside them, are also "empty." On the rescue ship, this is
Mrs. Robins, who, when she discovers Jai and Evne in her cabin, assumes they have been
sent there to perform sexually for her while she rides a sort of masturbation machine that
apparently works something like an exercycle: "She had enormous breasts, two wells of
silicone jelly, enormous buttocks, a faked, crowded waist, dyed eyes, dyed hair, and no
uterus" (pp. 98-99). It is hard not to read this hysterical absence, in the midst of
such artifically implement fleshy abundance, as somehow comparable to the vacuum formerly
inside Jai. And readers of Derrida's Of Grammatology will not be surprised to
learn she has a "tiny" and "feeble" voice, the depletion of breath,
the diminution of voice being the classical image used to signify inauthenticity. Indeed,
this is the place to note that the entire symptomatology of the novel, by which the author
signals authenticity/inauthenticity, sickness/health, good/evil is by and large a received
and uncritical one. Her subsequent novels will mount a massive critique on precisely that
symptomatology; but that must wait for a discussion of her work as a whole.
Before the ship lands, Evne (whose initial response to Mrs. Robins was to throw up)
teleports herself to Earth. Jai Vedh, in bewilderment and fear of the officers around him,
follows her -- and lands on the other side of the world. Though he wants to find her, the
thrust of all his subsequent actions is only toward survival.
What kind of world is this Earth? Its surface seems to be mostly parks and recreational
grounds. Much of life goes on below, and the subterranean aspect suggests the texture of
life itself has somehow become oppressive. A generalized material sufficiency has lead to
leisure and a certain amount of violence in the search for meaning -- a vision we can
recall from Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon (1941) and will see again in Varley's
"The Phantom of Kansas" (1976). There are security booths scattered about, where
citizens can take refuge from this public violence when it gets out of hand.
At the climax of the novel, Jai Vedh and a new found friend, a fourteen year old boy
named Ivat (who roams the streets with a hunting bow: when Jai breaks it, Ivat replaces it
from a street-vending machine that dispenses deadly weapons to anyone who wants them),
visits a kind of bacchanal, where rapine, murder, mutilation, and wanton destruction reign
among a populace who are, by and large, so drugged they can hardly read their own physical
sensations: one man, set on fire in a doorway, burns to death only aware of a peaceful
drowsiness. Another, who has just pushed a nail into his remaining eye, exclaims in a
"pleased" voice: "Ulch, I heard a 'ulch'," (p. 13), which the
surrounding crowd takes up as a listless chant.
This huge destruction-party balances -- and mirrors -- the huge celebration party on
the nameless utopian planet which climaxed the novel's opening movement. The first was a
"celebration" of "healthy" people which left Jai himself -- because of
their play with gravity and the shape of matter in the physical world -- disoriented,
frightened, and confused; the last is a "celebration" of "sick" people
which leaves Jai with a sense of his own power and autonomy. He makes love to a mildly
half-witted girl to prove it.
The brief concluding section of the book, which Silverberg in his introduction
characterizes as a "dreamlike epilogue," rather abruptly reveals why Evne and
her people allowed themselves to be discovered by the Earth people in the first place:
they have come to teach all of Earth how to be telepaths. They arrange a conference in
which the terms are to be set up with the Earth leaders; but the Earth people, terrified,
bomb them at the last minute. However, Jai, Evne, and the others simply teleport back to
the nameless planet -- leaving behind some instantly constructed charred bodies so the
Earth people will think they have been destroyed. Back on utopia, they continue their
ideal existence. And they have brought young Ivat with them, cured of the madness Jai
inflicted on him at the end of the bacchanal in response to a "love"-inspired
And Chaos Died, Silverberg notes, is hard reading: "The manner of its
telling makes it a difficult book to read, the way the design of a ski-slope makes it a
difficult place for a contemplative stroll" (p. viii). From the statements that
follow, it seems Silverberg assumes that the difficulty is stylistic. I think he has
mislocated it. The difficulty is in the narrative structure itself. At no time does Jai,
the protagonist, think about any of the concerns in the novel as an explicit problem he
wishes to solve and to which a sizable proportion of his subsequent actions would be
When a writer does employ such a convention, immediately a vast amount of mental
house-keeping is facilitated for the reader. When we read a novel employing such a
narrative convention, certain actions are immediately subordinated to certain others;
primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels are established almost at once. The novel is
much easier to read.
When a writer does not employ this convention, the reader is bereft of this
prestructured organization. All data are equal until they link up with other data that put
them into a pattern: it is harder reading, and more demanding. It is intriguing to note,
then, about the SF audience, that in the 8 years it has been in print, And Chaos Died has
sold almost half again as many copies as Russ's first novel, Picnic on Paradise, a
far more conventionally organized novel with a clear narrative problem, that is certainly
an "easier read" than Chaos and has been available two years longer.
For a while now I have been aware that Joanna Russ's SF represents a certain
embarrassment for anyone approaching the genre with broadly critical intent. Critics of
Anglo-American SF find themselves drawn to two seemingly unarguable positions:
1. The worth of SF cannot be present in any literarily worthy style. Most SF is
appallingly written, therefore its worth must be sought at the level of a grosser
2. The worth of SF cannot be present in any rigorous presentation of social ideas: most
SF is governed by a political-ethical system which one hesitates to call fascist only
because any functioning fascist group would have to be a great deal more in touch with the
complexities of the world even to exist, much less to oppress others. Therefore SF's worth
must be present elsewhere than in the ideological system(s) educible from it.
But if these two positions are the case, what is a critic to do with a writer like Russ
whose prose style from the beginning has been rigorous, deeply felt, richly envisioned,
all its riches governed not only by verbal economy but by a psychological economy as well
that marks her sentences with a pace and precision one associates with a John Hawkes, a
Vladimir Nabokov (Russ's former teacher and one of the dedicatees of Chaos), or a
Djuna Barnes of the Spillway stories? What does one do with an SF novel that
describes a spaceliner thus: "The Big One was obviously one of those epoxy-and-metal
eggs produced by itself -- the Platonic Idea of a pebble turned inside out, born of a
computer and aspiring toward the condition of Mechanical Opera" (p. 43). The irony of
that "obviously" could occasion pages of explication de texte. To fully
appreciate such a sentence, one must be able to call up the ghost of the Walter Pater
phrase it lightly mocks ("All art aspires to the condition of music") as well as
the pulp-horror diction ("The Old One...") it mocks as lightly.
What does one do with an SF novel like The Female Man, which demands its
politics be taken seriously, and presents those politics without naivete or bombast, but
rather through a whole host of distancing devices that make it an "epic novel"
in almost exactly the way Brecht used the term "epic theater"? What do we do
with SF in which occur passages such as:
This book is written in blood.
Is it written entirely in blood?
No, some of it is written in tears.
Are the blood and the tears all mine?
Yes, they have been in the past. But the future is a different matter. As the bear
swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down
while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind,
and a fistful of ground pepper in her snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of
her mothers (i.e., her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken tree
above her dropped bang thud on her head:
OH, SOMEBODY ASIDES ME IS GONNA RUE THIS HERE PARTICULAR DAY. (Female Man, p.
This is a contemporary writer working at the highest level of rhetorical risk, where
the political clichés of blood and tears must be re-dared, in a garden at once Edenic and
Newtonian, regalvanized by honesty and irony.
What one does if one is a critic committed to the position that the worth of SF is
present in neither its style nor its ideas is to become rather tongue-tied; and certainly
one hesitates to locate it as the focus for mature attention seeking out such worth.
When René Girard analyzes the way Camus, in The Fall, criticizes both his
youthful romanticism and his own "bad faith" that lead him to the failures of
psychological veracity and sociological mimesis in The Stranger's presentation of
crime and punishment (René Girard's "Camus's Stranger Retried," in To
Double Business Bound), we are ready to accept it because Camus comes to us already
valorized as a thinker. Russ's We Who Are About To ... presents the same kind of
critique of her early novel Picnic on Paradise. The Female Man mounts a similar
critique of And Chaos Died (as her most recent novel, The Two of Them criticizes
The Female Man in its turn). But SF is supposed to be a variety of entertainment,
not an expression of thought. So once more we are unprepared.
If SF criticism is to accomplish anything at all, it must face embarrassments such as
Russ's work head on.
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