Back “A Game of Vlet,” Joanna Russ

From Joanna Russ: Novels & Stories

Russ seated with other Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalists in 1953 (Society for Science)

Russ seated with other Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalists in 1953 (Society for Science)

Born and raised in the Bronx, Joanna Russ demonstrated early aptitude in the sciences and became one of the top ten finalists in the national 1953 Westinghouse Science Talent Search for her project “Growth of Certain Fungi Under Colored Light and in Darkness.” The photograph of her surrounded by the nine other finalists and three older men has taken on a life of its own in the story of her career. Nicole Rudick, the editor of the LOA collection of Russ’s work, describes it: “Nearly all of them have turned to look at her—a directive from the photographer, perhaps, but a move that nonetheless singles out her difference and gives the image a strange, wolfish tension. The tableau recalls the poet Carolyn Forché’s description of the midcentury American poetry scene: ‘I looked at photographs, formal group portraits of American poets, poets such as Howard Nemerov, W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell. And often in these portraits, there would be a woman seated in a small chair in the front of the group, and most of the poets would be standing or leaning casually against desks surrounding her.’ In Forché’s telling, there is only ever one chair, only one woman.”

Speculative fiction offered Russ the possibility to bridge the gap between her aspirations and those of the men who surrounded her. She reinvented (and upended) the genre by creating Alyx, a “wild hill girl” from ancient Ourdh, ex-evangelical assassin, bodyguard, and agent for the far-future Trans-Temporal Military Authority—a series of stories that started out as “sword and sorcery” and ended up approaching science fiction. She later recalled her breakthrough: “One of the most exciting things about working in SF for me, a woman, is that SF is so open-ended—it’s perfectly possible to imagine a world where sexism doesn’t exist, or in which women can be presented in the context of new myths that women can admire or learn from.”

We present one of the stories, “A Game of Vlet,” in which Alyx comes to the “rescue” (well, not quite) of a group of intruders captured by palace guards and challenges one of the prisoners to a wild chess-like competition that fuses the play of the gameboard with the reality of the world outside. You can read it at our Story of the Week site, along with an introduction describing how the story influenced a series of novels by her good friend Samuel R. Delany.

Read Joanna Russ’s “A Game of Vlet”

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