Back Joanna Russ, “When It Changed”

Joanna Russ (1937–2011)
From The Future Is Female! More Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women

Photograph of Joanna Russ, 1984, by Ileen Weber (Wikipedia). First American edition of Russ’s The Female Man (Bantam, 1975) with a cover illustration by American artist Morgan Kane (1916–2014). “When It Changed” and parts of The Female Man are set on the planet Whileaway.

Fifty years ago, in 1972, Joanna Russ’s Nebula Award–winning story “When It Changed” was published—and it caused quite a stir.

The story turns the tables on those many earlier tales and novels in which astronauts land (or crash) on a planet where all the inhabitants or all the rulers are women (usually portrayed as randy vixens or dominatrices); Russ re-imagines the idea from the women’s point of view. It first appeared in Again, Dangerous Visions, the second of two legendary science fiction anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison, who knew the story would be controversial among some of his readers. In his introduction to the story, he called out his fellow authors for their chauvinism and declared that “others may pillory me for this, but as far as I’m concerned, the best writers in SF today are the women.”

About the story itself, he wrote: “Joanna has here written a story that makes some extraordinarily sharp distinctions between the abilities and attitudes of the sexes, while erasing many others we think immutable. It is, in the best and strongest sense of the word, a female liberation story, while never once speaking of, about, or to the subject. And it points out why I think women’s lib is one of the three or four most potent and influential movements to spring up in our country during these last decades of social upheaval.”

Whileaway, the name of the planet in the tale, would figure again in Russ’s novel The Female Man, published in 1975. A half century later, both the story and the novel are considered classics—significant turning points in science fiction. For our Story of the Week selection, we present “When it Changed,” along with an introduction about Russ’s extraordinary career.

Read “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

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