Saturday, July 28, 2012

"The men are coming! The men are coming!" A summary of "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

File:Avon Science Fiction Reader 1.jpg
Cover of the fantasy fiction magazine Avon Science 
Fiction Reader no. 1 (1951) 
featuring "The War of the Sexes" 
by Edmond Hamilton.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
On the planet Whileaway, there are no men. The women hardly notice because they have learned to survive, thrive, and reproduce without penetrative intercourse. That is not to say the women of Whileaway do not enjoy intercourse, but they enjoy it with other women, who they take as wives in a marriage of equality.
The narrator, Janet, of Russ's short story appears from the beginning of the story to be a man. It is not until later that the reader understands that the main viewpoint is a woman, a woman speaking of winning duels, wielding guns, and loving her wife, Kate, and their three collective daughters.
Four male astronauts land on Whileaway, and interrogate Janet and her family. “Where are all the people?” the men keep asking. Janet does not understand why they keep asking that, but then she sees that when the astronauts say 'people' they really mean 'men'. She tells the astronauts that the men died out six-hundred years ago. At this news, one of the astronauts gives a teary sigh and then says, “We're here now.”
Kate believes the men to be dangerous, and even tries to shoot one of them but Janet stops her. Later, Janet wishes she would have followed Kate's instincts and gotten rid of the newcomers. It dawns on her that the men are going to take over the planet of Whileaway, especially after one of them tells her that they need 'the cells of Whileaway'. She tells him that he can have all the cells he needs, but he smiles and tells her they cannot just be given the cells, they must be given through the act of penetrative intercourse (though he doesn't quite say it like that). He tells Janet the Whileaway kind of life is 'unnatural', and to make it natural once again, a dual-natured society must reign again. When Janet tells him that she already has a wife in Kate, the astronaut smiles and assumes that their relationship is based off of a mutually agreed need to survive monetarily. Actual love between two women is beyond the astronaut's understanding.
To the Whileaway women, the astronauts seem more like apes than like human men. Janet, Kate, and their daughters do not even find the men attractive. Janet asks her daughter if she would kiss a man, and her daughter scoffs and says she'd sooner kiss a toad.
The women of Whileaway are already dual-natured, even if the astronauts cannot see it. Janet thinks wistfully of her daughter going off for the traditional bear-hunt, like a right of passage for a Whileaway woman to become an adult. And Janet shares many traits that would be considered manly as she seems to protect her family, know how to use a gun, and duel to the death with other Whileaway women. At the same time, Janet loves her daughter and loves being a mother. Kate is not a 'weak' woman either, though she seems gentler than Janet. She does not like guns, and so it is a surprise when she grabs Janet's gun with ease and tries to shoot the invaders.
Whileaway women defy common stereotypes of women in our culture, and the way they perceive men (though exaggerated) serves as a good example of the exact chasms that separate the two genders.

Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed”. New York: Doubleday, 1972. Print.      


  1. Seems like a good book......

  2. It's a great book! If you Google the short story, you can find it for free...!