It’s Thursday folks, and I hope you’re ready for our Throwback Thursday column this week. It’s a short story that is… well… very short, but it sure packs one hell of a wallop.
‘When It Changed’ is very short story by Hugo award winner, Joanna Russ, who is most well-known for her feminist critiques. Naturally, science fiction is a perfect medium for that, as it often used to critique the problems of now… or rather the 70s, but honestly, ‘When It Changed’ is just as meaningful now as it was back then. Thus, it is a perfect addition to our ongoing column dedicated to the great science fiction of the past.
The story takes place on a planet called Whileaway, where a plague wiped out 50% of the population, and all of the men. Fortunately, the one population that survived was a group of the most intelligent women, who were able to work it out that they could still have children.
Usually, when we imagine a society of all women, things like bare-breasted women await men to have sex with (an obvious male fantasy), or as very aggressive and warlike. This short story turns the idea of Alexander meeting Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons, on its head. Instead of the Amazons seeking out Alexander to breed and create a race more intelligent people, men seek these women of ‘When It Changed” out to fix their own genetic pool, and presumably to raise their own intelligence. The women in this story are much like taking over current society, and changing everyone into women. There are complicated relationships, some people who are more aggressive than others, only now when they delineate class and status, it has nothing to do with gender. There are no stereotypes with them whatsoever.
In the story, the men arrive intent on convincing them to find Earth and repopulate, which the main character and her wife are strongly against. Throughout it, the men repeat that there is “sexual equality” in their culture now, though they railroad and cow them into doing their wishes. Indeed, it ends with the main character upset with how small she felt in their presence, and wishing if they had just a few more generations, they could develop more weapons to fight of the male invaders. Instead, she despairs that her daughters will have to mate with men (with whom they think are unattractive and toad-like), and their society of 600 years will be gone.
So, as you guessed, there isn’t really a plot. The story is a vignette at best, and interesting take on feminism with interpretations that are too wide and varied to really get into here. But that’s the point of good science fiction, right? You’re supposed to question what you know and what you think.
For being 10 pages, ‘When It Changed’ is surprisingly dense and difficult to unpack. It refers to events we have no context for, and societal standards that don’t exist in the current timeline, while making subtle commentaries on our own. You have to really concentrate to piece together the bigger picture of the story because Russ is not spelling it out for you.
If you want to read something atypical and thought provoking, ‘When It Changed’ is definitely for you.