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Saturday Storytime: When It Changed

Joanna Russ died yesterday. You might not know who she is, but you should. Annalee has a post at io9 that explains why she was important (and she was), but she was also simply one of the most imaginative of the early science fiction writers. Beyond that, unlike many of the classic writers, she could write.

“When It Changed” is a deceptively simple piece. A simple meeting, but what the characters stand to lose tells us so much about what we’ve never had. An excerpt:

“Plague?” he said. “That’s most unfortunate.”

“Yes,” I said. “Most unfortunate. We lost half our population in one generation.”

He looked properly impressed.

“Whileaway was lucky,” I said. “We had a big initial gene pool, we had been chosen for extreme intelligence, we had a high technology and a large remaining population in which every adult was two-or-three experts in one. The soil is good. The climate is blessedly easy. There are thirty millions of us now. Things are beginning to snowball in industry do you understand? give us seventy years and we’ll have more than one real city, more than a few industrial centers, full-time professions, full-time radio operators, full-time machinists, give us seventy years and not everyone will have to spend three quarters of a lifetime on the farm.” And I tried to explain how hard it is when artists can practice full-time only in old age, when there are so few, so very few who can be free, like Katy and myself. I tried also to outline our government, the two houses, the one by professions and the geographic one; I told him the district caucuses handled problems too big for the individual towns. And that population control was not a political issue, not yet, though give us time and it would be. This was a delicate point in our history; give us time. There was no need to sacrifice the quality of life for an insane rush into industrialization. Let us go our own pace. Give us time.

“Where are all the people?” said the monomaniac.

I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries.

“They died,” I said. “Thirty generations ago.”

I thought we had poleaxed him. He caught his breath. He made as if to get out of the chair he was sitting in; he put his hand to his chest; he looked around at us with the strangest blend of awe and sentimental tenderness. Then he said, solemnly and earnestly:

“A great tragedy.”

I waited, not quite understanding.

Keep reading (including the author’s afterword).