As everybody knows, the middle of the 20th century was a time of great social upheaval in the US. As the Silver Age shed its glow, advances in civil rights, Vietnam war protest, flower power, and other counter-culture movements took center stage. The old guard forced to take a stand, so too in science fiction were traditional ways challenged. From narrative structure and style to race and gender assumptions, the genre expanded, using it’s own unique tools to express the zeitgeist. Presenting the anti-Conan, Joanna Russ’ Picnic in Paradise (1968) is a part of that literary upheaval—not a key part, but certainly a contributor.
Hardened female soldier stuck in a semi-utopian civilization, Picnic in Paradise is the story of Alyx. Displaced in time, she is pressed into acting as guide for a group of spoiled humans—all upgraded bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than herself—across uninhabited, scenic terrain. Despite the commercial war going on in the background, Alyx expects the trip to be an easy one, and thinks they can make it in a matter of days. Events quickly escalate, however, and what was supposed to be a week-and-a-half becomes weeks. But the journey is not the only thing that stretches. Alyx’s personality caught in a variety of conflicts with her past and the vices of the travelers, she is forced to confront, and in some cases conquer, personal demons as their journey becomes ever more harrowing in the wild beyond.
Picnic in Paradise has a lot of things on its chest—the most burning thing certainly Alyx. But where Leigh Brackett tiptoed away from the standard pulp presentation of women, giving many of her female characters agency in what remained male science & sorcery stories, Russ takes leaps away in Picnic, making her female lead as gritty and emotionally unresolved as they come, and in turn creating female science & sorcery.
"…and when he tried to rise she slashed him through the belly and then—lest the others intrude —pulled back his head by the pale hair and cut his throat from ear to ear. She did not spring back from the blood but stood in it, her face strained in the same involuntary grimace as before, the cords standing out on her neck...”
Not your average damsel in distress (to say the least), Alyx has obviously led a life that toughened her to the core. Repressing a lot of personal issues, she moves through Picnic in Paradise like a lion in a cage—hungry, snapping, eyes smoldering, only occasionally social, and always-always pacing. Life eating a hole inside her, the strength of her character is borne in action and deed, and her humanity in mistakes and chances lost. I will not go so far as to say Alyx is a fully realized character, but for the full-on subversion of standard genre female characterization, she succeeds where Conan remains a fairy tale.
Character is not the only mold Russ is interested in breaking. Writing style is (apparently) the other. But where Alyx makes her mark, the prose/Russ attempts to erase it. The writing of Picnic in Paradise is all elbows and knees. The following passage, taken just after Alyx has bore her naked body to the group, moves from profound to dramatic to humorous to confusing (why the tears?) to a paragraph of exposition that. just. won’t. die, all in the matter of a page. And the speech tags, punctuation, asides, and backwards paragraph structure only further cloud matters:
"None of you has anything on," said Alyx. "You have on your history," said the artist, "and we're not used to that, believe me. Not to history. Not to old she-wolves with livid marks running up their ribs and arms, and not to the idea of fights in which people are neither painlessly killed nor painlessly fixed up but linger on and die—slowly—or heal—slowly.
"Well!" he added, in a very curious tone of voice, "after all, we may all look like that before this is over."
"Buddha, no!" gasped a nun.
Alyx put her clothes on, tying the black belt around the black dress. "You may not look as bad," she said a bit sourly. "But you will certainly smell worse.
"And I," she added conversationally, "don't like pieces of plastic in people's teeth. I think it disgusting."
"Refined sugar," said the officer. "One of our minor vices," and then, with an amazed expression, he burst into tears.
"Well, well," muttered the young girl, "we'd better get on with it."
"Yes," said the middle-aged man, laughing nervously, 'People for Every Need,'you know," and before he could be thoroughly rebuked for quoting the blazon of the Trans-Temporal Military Authority (Alyx heard the older woman begin lecturing him on the nastiness of calling anyone even by insinuation a thing, an agency, a means or an instrument, anything but a People, or as she said "a People People") he began to lead the file toward the door, with the girl coming next, a green tube in the middle of her mouth, the two nuns clinging together in shock, the bald-headed boy swaying a little as he walked, as if to unheard music, the lieutenant and the artist—who lingered.
Erratic with limited coherency, such a style is much better suited to satire, stream of consciousness, post-modern experimentation, humor—anything but planetary adventure/drama. Everything jammed together, its edges rough, the narrative tone is more choppy than fluid, and as a result more distracting than thought-provoking or engaging. Why, for example, are two characters’ dialogue placed in the same paragraph, when a few lines later the character who is speaking is given a new paragraph for a second line of dialogue—and then twisted by the speech tag which follows. Such a style causes the reader to perpetually spend that fraction of a moment keeping up with who’s speaking, sidetracking a reading experience that easily could have been inherent. Alyx’s character would have been more sharply defined in relation to the group’s, thus benefiting theme.
The anti-Conan, Picnic in Paradise examines a savage woman amongst civilized people in a savage land. The examination largely successful, the reader gains a better picture of the woman’s dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mountainous journey alongside humans pampered by vices of the future and unaccustomed to such Spartan conditions. Not doing itself any favors, however, the text sways and pitches to the beat of its own drum—a writer trying to do more than just produce ‘a novel’ as their first, when in fact the story type would have benefited from a more traditional approach; the personal and emotional content would have had more impact, and the transition of story, smoother. The seeds sown, however, the ambition would later reveal itself in more cohesive form in The Female Man and And Chaos Died. But those are for another day’s review…