There are many characteristics universal to the sexes, and among them is the respect confidence commands. A person may speak utter rubbish, but if they do so in a firm voice, with an active body, and in a dynamic tone that implies they know what they are talking about, it may take some time before the listener figures out that it is indeed bullshit. (Watch any televangelist for a fine example.) Joanna Russ’ 1983 novella “Souls” is the story of one such person. Their ideas, however, are the opposite of bullshit.
“Souls” is the story of the Abbess Radegunde, as told through the eyes of the novitiate Radulphus. Their abbey falling under Viking attack one day, instead of organizing the defense of the grounds Radegunde rushes out to face the group of rape-and-pillage minded men, alone. Swords without ‘s’ her weapons, at every turn she surprises the men, negotiating terms for the safety of the abbey and its people. Disaster is not completely averted, but the hostile takeover yields bigger surprises yet—even for the sharp-tongued Abbess.
And it is Abbess Radegunde who is the star of the show. Zigging when people expect her to zag, flaunting the Catholic church to accomplish loftier goals, and dealing with the Viking raiders in a specific, crafty way, her wit and wisdom transcend the page. Contrasting the greed and lust of the men, she deflates their interests, one laterally applied, indirect argument at a time. Championing domesticity, the value of mother, and vision beyond mere materialism, her message, and Russ’, is clearly laid out in pointed terms.
Problems start to creep in, however, when looking beyond the novella’s agenda. Radegunde is a dynamo that treads the line of being larger-than-life, but never quite crosses it. The other characters, however, are less rounded. Thorvard, leader of the Vikings, as well as the other characters, are story pawns rather than a living, breathing humans. Knowing the agenda, however, the stereotypes can be forgiven. Which leads to plotting…
Reading “Souls” I kept thinking back to James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston Do You Read?” The novellas of very similar import (to contrast gender via approaches to, and mindsets regarding, life), I can’t help but compare Russ’ story unfavorably. Where Tiptree Jr. patiently sets the scene and escalates gender tension toward a moment which forms both the conclusion and exclamation point on the socio-political agenda, Russ opens with a clash, but then depends on a moment of transcendence at the climax for effect. Were the moment of transcendence to walk back through the story and connect a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of pebbles, then all would be fine. But it doesn’t. The events occurring to Radegunde at the end are disconnected from the main storyline. It causes such a variety of questions that the body of ideas built around gender to that point becomes confused with metaphysical matters. Are aliens real? Were they even aliens—perhaps angels? Is God an alien? Is God/Catholicism real? The result is imagery superficially bright and inviting. But at a deeper level, it is bolted onto a plot that is forced and ideologically deconstructs itself. Had Russ chosen a key gender point to hinge the climax upon, rather than one which draws the story into a wide, wide range of religious and metaphysical concerns, the conclusion would have stuck. As it stands, it’s a sudden ascension with incongruous rationale.
In the end, “Souls” is a concept novella with an extremely strong main character. Soft not hard sci-fi the precept, Russ contrasts the genders toward promoting not only feminine values, but perennial wisdom regarding materialism and roles in society. For this, it is an important story in the genre. But the weakness of plotting, particularly the ending, does not serve the agenda conceptually. A nice piece of eye candy, it distracts from the earlier points rather than underlining them. Regardless, the story is enjoyable, and its ideas, at least, transcend the page.