The Female Man
by Joanna Russ
The Female Man is supposedly a great, literary science fiction novel, that, therefore, is entirely impossible to find on the shelves of any bookseller. I don't think it helps that the currently available edition has a rather ugly cover and poor typesetting - one would hardly be enticed to pick it up on a whim.
It is a literary novel in the sense that it demands a fair amount of work from the reader. Viewpoints and rhetorical styles change frequently - multiple times on a single page in some cases. We see one character in limited third, than described by another character, then by another, requiring the reader to actively sense-make.
It may also be literary in the sense that the plot, when described, is deceptively simple: Four genetically identical women from parallel universes are brought together - one from a mid-century New York where the Great Depression never ended, one from more or less "real" 1970s New York, one from a future utopia where there are no men, and one from a future where men and women are in a perpetual, and non-metaphorical, war of the sexes. That's it. While you might expect this sort of thing would shake up the characters' world-views, they hold on to their assumptions and mores - only one of the four ends up seeing any of the worlds as a viable alternative to their own. That's not to say the book plods along - the action is created in the narration and the work reader and author do together. In a sense, the structure is the plot.
I don't mean to suggest The Female Man is literature "instead of" science fiction - Russ draws on SF tropes as well as the utopian tradition. Like Gilman's Herland or Piercy's Massapoiset in Woman on the Edge of Time, the proposed utopia is agrarian and genderless (in the case of Herland and The Female Man, because there are no men; in Woman on the Edge of Time, it's because gender doesn't matter). Technology is present but in the service of the ecosystem rather than the converse; society is non-hierarchical and communal. The agrarian-feminist vision of utopia has since been justifiably critiqued by Donna Haraway and others, and the notion of peaceful, egalitarian women is an interesting type of gender essentialism. (Of course, I'd still rather live there than any of the other worlds described.) But then, the book is a product of the 1970s and in dialog with that decade's ideas.
Some books that are so overtly politically, philosophically, sociologically engaged with the ideas of their moment subsequently become irrelevant if not incomprehensible. The Female Man has not, in part because we still live in a sexist world. When I try to pin down what, precisely, has changed, only one thing stood out - people are less likely to say that one advantage of being female is that one "gets to wear pretty dresses." Femininity, even when regarded as "natural," has become more recognized as also being work. But, as one character tells us:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-store owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male. …
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male.
I think most of the people in the world are male.