As foretold, I read Joanna Russ' We who are about to (mild spoilers). Since unlike Samuel Delany who wrote the introduction to the current reprint, I don't believe in giving away the surprises, I'll put a few general comments first for those who are about to read the book (ahem), while the "spoilers" go below the fold.
So, did I get my epiphany? No, but I may well have, had I read it at the time I read the other books I mentioned, when I, when the books, their subjects were younger. That is not to say that the subject-matter were no longer relevant — unfortunately, it is, and from a certain angle, it may never go out of style. In fact, the topic was strong enough to carry me through the booklet within a single day, in stark contrast to my reading habits. This however was despite of the presentation, not because of it. The book is written "backwards"; much of the "drama" stems from the fact that we don't learn enough about what motivates the characters until it's too late to make much of a difference, and even then, we don't learn much. (Unfortunately that way, we never get a chance to like or at least understand most of the characters, which limits the story's impact.) When a story mainly dealing with a philosophic issue only implies the characters' respective view-points, something has gone wrong. To add insult to injury, the only real — and I'm using the word loosely — excurse into philosophy consists of the first-person narrator dwelling on their religion, which doesn't seem to actually contribute much to the story, or the book's main theme — if anything, it may detract from it, almost suggesting that requesting basic human rights is little more than a religious preference. This seems a little odd in a book that's in part about not giving up what was achieved in age of enlightenment.
Like 28 days later, We who are about to has two major parts, and once more, a story that tries to be two things ends up being neither — personally, I gravitate towards do one thing, and do that right. Another gripe is that the narrator uses a text-recognition system (much like what Orwell called speakwrite in 1984). This works splendidly in the latter half of the book (and is, indeed, necessary), but fails miserably in the first half as conversations between the dramatis personae are sometimes presented as part of prose like they would be in a book, sometimes in a more conversational style, but never in reported speech, and often repeat details you simply wouldn't give if summing up tonight this morning's conversations. As if to make up for these blunders, a lot of attention is paid to making it seem as though you could dictate and erase, but not easily edit entries — relevant information is sometimes given as an afterthought — and in many cases, not at all. This does not serve to make the book an enjoyable read, and the lingering suspicion that the author put more effort into trying to impress us with her apropos knowledge than into proofreading doesn't help.
In short, while I'm not as unhappy with the book (spoilers!) as some, I must admit that the execution is lacking, the exploration of the main theme is only cursory, and that the 2nd half is outright ineffectual (I'll suggest a book that implements part II much better below the fold as to avoid revealing what it's about):
"I like what you're trying to do, but not how you're doing it."
But then, you could level that criticism ("they're a good scientist, but their writing leaves much to be desired") against virtually any hard sci-fi author …
An explosion hurls a space-folding starship's few passengers across the galaxies and onto an uncharted planet. Chances of being rescued, especially within a few decades, are slim. Most of the stranded decide to defy the odds and insist on colonizing the planet, even though this means living in the stone age …
The novel poses bold questions — should life go on at any cost? Or are there cases imaginable where it's just not worth it? When it's better to die with dignity? Can there be civilization without industrialization? And if not, are you ready to die for civilizing basics like gender equality and reproductive rights?
They say that "any society is only three meals away from anomy." In her novel, Russ examines the women's rights analogue of this claim. Are women's rights an artificial construct, given to us by men's grace, and just as easily taken away? Or, in slightly more positive words, are they a result of a long hard battle, a prize we'll lose the moment we let down our guard? (Like the Red Queen said, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.") Given how very young most of our rights — some established within our (or at least my) lifetime — are, given that they are hardly universal yet, the fear is always there, just below the surface. Or so it would seem, judging from the way the whole "mandatory brothel service" urban legend got people's, especially women's, hackles up. (And honestly, "it's a legal possibility, but it's not like anybody'd ever exercise that option" is really a little too close for comfort, isn't it?) Some might indeed argue that as long as that fear exists (which it might for many generations, but most for those women who actually remember a time when they themselves didn't have these liberties), there can be no "true equality." Sure, that distinction is in many ways academic and we'll go for "as good as we can achieve within our lifetime," but for those who ask, "why do you keep on fighting, you've already got equality?", this is one of the reasons why. We don't, yet. We know that women's rights are as fragile, perhaps more fragile than the crumbling civil liberties. We guard them jealously.
As demonstrated by 28 days later, the lamented mindset is still alive in some. Personally, I never quite understood what was so hot about the human so-called race that necessitated its continuation in all eternity (especially at the price of dignity and basic rights). We who are about to makes this question even less pertinent, as it's only the survival of a small group — rather than that of all humankind — that's at stake. It may be worthwile to review these issues in an attempt to find an answer that fits organically (ahem) into the concepts of eco-feminism and/or deep ecology. (This is your resident Poison Ivy typing after all.)
To sum up, the first half of the book doesn't go much deeper than the questions posed above, and the actual dying with dignity bit seems almost trivial compared to Lars Gustafsson's stunning, touching death of a beekeeper.
But as David Gerrold said, writing is about asking the right questions, the next question. About making a difference. The book may not be well-written, but I believe Joanna Russ made a difference. I know she did in my life, and I have no problem making a gesture of gratitude in response to that. The book may not be worth the money in some people's eyes, but the difference was in mine.
The short version of this article would of course be, "if a book can be losslessly condensed into two paragraphs' worth of ideas, it may not be much of a book, but if those ideas still easily carry a hundred pages, they may be impressive ideas."
It was suggested that if I use weird words like "anomy", I could damn well define them, too:
Anomy, literally "lawlessness" (as opposed to "anarchy", absence of ruling or government, which can be a Good Thing(TM)) is the lack of purpose, ideals, values in an individual or group and also, where applicable, the resulting lawlessness, violence, warlordism.
Basically, what is often described as the falling apart of society, the impending breakdown of civilization.
Some reviewers noted how they find the first-person narrator unlikable. Can't say I agree. The first time she pipes up may seem needlessly contrary (partly because again, she doesn't elaborate on her motivation -- I'm not quite sure why; while it could be argued we don't learn much about the others simply because the narrator doesn't know and, in some cases, has no way of knowing, she surely could elaborate on her own views), but aside from that, I don't see anything wrong with her?
If there was anyone in the story I actively disliked, it was Cassandra, and I'm not sure why the narrator seemed to like her (again, this was not elaborated on). (Some have suggested this may in fact be an expression of Marxist-feminist views, but that seems guesswork at best.) Personally, I wonder what would have happened had Nathalie and the narrator teamed up early on ...