Young People Read Old SFF

When It Changed

Joanna Russ

Young People Read Old SFF

2 Mar, 2017

With this story we enter the 1970s, the last decade in the Young People project1. I knew which story I wanted to begin the decade with: Joanna Russ’ 1972 Nebula-winner When It Changed”. Noted author and critic2 Russ’s story is a reply to such classics as Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet, stories in which planets populated entirely by women are granted that most precious of treasures, a man and his unsolicited advice. Russ was not always entirely pleased by the status quo. Subtle hints of her displeasure can be detected in this classic first contact tale.

Of course, we live in a modern era of complete equality between the sexes. Who knows if this story can speak to younger people? Let’s find out!

When It Changed” can be found inTheWesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Or it would be, if I did not plan to cheat slightly with the final story in this phase of the project.

2: For some reason, it’s surprisingly hard to acquire this classic work of criticism on short notice, but it’s worth the effort to track down. It can be found here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo)

This story gets a meh’ from me. It just wasn’t that interesting . I will admit that some of it may be the dim view the story takes of men, being a man myself. It’s hard to disentangle myself from my identity. I’ve read similar stories: colony is cut off from Earth, overcomes unique problems that cause important changes in their culture, then Earth reestablishes contact and proceeds to ruin everything. In these stories Earth has usually stagnated and never solves any of the current sociological problems. I didn’t find any of the characters compelling, nor were any of the descriptions of the colony or society especially interesting. It was a meh concept with meh execution.


Full disclosure: I have a terrible memory (especially for books I’ve read). I don’t know if other people experience the same thing, where you read mysteries and most of the time don’t remember who the killer is and why they did it, but that happens to me more often than I’d care to admit. In spite of my terrible memory, I’d still be willing to suggest that When It Changed” is the most relevant of all the stories we’ve read so far in this project. I’m sure this is a very hard to believe statement, especially when you compare the story to some of the others we’ve read (i.e. dolphin-people and doomsday don’t-let-the-sun-set cultists), but I’m willing to say it and stand by it, for a few reasons.

It took me longer than I’d care to admit to figure out the narrator’s gender. First I assumed the kids (“one of hers, two of mine”) were from previous marriages. Then I tried to figure out how step-siblings could possibly have characteristics from both parents. I couldn’t, so I just kept reading. I managed to realize the narrator was female before one of the men from earth called her by name, but just barely. This reminds me of something that happened last week – I was traveling to another city for work, and heard that one of the sitting members of council had died. My coworker and I both assumed the councillor was male (because they were in a position of power). They weren’t. I’d like to think I’m an equal-opportunity thinker, but I guess I still have some work to do.

I also appreciated that the men came to a planet full of women, announced that Earth had achieved gender equality, and that it would be better for all the women if earthlings helped them out. By all accounts, the women were doing great on their own – they’d developed a sustainable plan to become self-reliant in about 70 years and weren’t interested in help, but it was offered to” (forced upon) them anyway. And also the suggestion that introducing men from gender equal” Earth wouldn’t diminish the amount of influence of the women is great. And by great I mean laughable. And by laughable I mean something that women have to put up with all the time, even today.

Overall, I’m glad I got to realize that even though some things have changed, many things still have not changed, since the 1970s publication of When It Changed”.


In stark contrast to some of the earlier stories in YPROSF, this is a story all about feminism and gender equality. At first, I almost thought the narrator and Earth natives were cats, or some other sort of non-human animal that had become sentient after humans left the planet. Maybe I was influenced by reading all the other YPROSF stories with sentient non-human animals.

It would be good to see what happens/happened to the males on the planet. Presumably, genetic manipulation means that only females exist in the planet’s society, but I’m curious about what happened to the men who stayed and died. (*After some research, it seems there is more in other stories about this world and the plague’.)

It reminds me of:

a) Oblivion, from the perspective of the people on the ground who 

b) Our depressing current social reality

For the 1970s, I’m guessing this was an out-there story with its feminism. Today, it’s much closer to social norms. Sadly, all of this seems very relevant to current events and a rise in hate speech in the last year towards women and anyone who is not a cis-gendered heterosexual white male. 

Overall, this story is excellent. It makes me wish there was more: research tells me there is more. I’m intrigued about the other stories. There are little mysteries about this society that make much more sense once you get to the end. Some of the best stories have details that aren’t obvious the first time through but gain meaning later, and this story is no exception.