THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE MOON

By Joanna Russ

St. Martin's. 229 pp. $15.95

JOANNA RUSS at her merciless, irreverent, hilarious, cold-hearted best is one of the most serious and satisfying writers of science fiction and fantasy alive today. With its appearance in 1975, her controversial novel The Female Man opened up new strategies and possibilities for the New Wave sf writers of Russ' generation, such as Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin. Since then, even as that novel has itself been allowed to slip out of print again and again, both its dazzling play of points of view and narrative forms (from drama to fable and essay to epic) on the one hand, and its unapologetically explicit feminist politics and visions on the other, have helped to inspire a new generation of women writers within science fiction, women like Vonda MacIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas and Octavia Butler, to strike out boldly for themselves.

And Russ herself has continued to write and publish steadily since the time of that trailblazing work. By now she has scooped up both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the "Oscars" of the sf world, and authored several more novels and collections of short fiction, of which the last two before this one, The Zanzibar Cat (1983) and Extra (Ordinary) People (1986), are particularly impressive and sustained. And now St. Martin's, the same publisher which, according to Books in Print, has already dumped the latter title from its market of available goods, offers us instead a new collection, The Hidden Side of the Moon -- "spanning 28 years of the author's creative output," as the dustflap ringingly proclaims -- in effect, the third collection in the last four years.

Now, any smart shopper in literature-land should be able to see in the constellations sketched out by these stray scraps of evidence the probable outline of a large rat. Not me, though: I dived into this new assortment in full expectation of finding in it the same degree of breath-taking formal invention, mordant Swiftean wit and passionate moral and political commitment that have tested, provoked, challenged and delighted me -- often all at the same time -- in Russ' previous books. And I was, accordingly, let down.

Not that The Hidden Side of the Moon is entirely bare of gifts and barren of pleasures. Of the 26 pieces that constitute the volume, there are easily seven that virtually any fiction reader will find compelling and rewarding, from the deft artistry of "The Little Dirty Girl," in which a narrator -- whose life situation (a writer-professor living alone in Seattle) hews close to Russ' own -- writes of her haunting and redemption by a starving guttersnipe version of her repressed self, to the tour de force of "Old Thoughts, Old Presences," the brilliant non-complementary diptych that closes out the book, presenting us first with a set of surreally time-shifting variations on a specific mother-daughter relationship, then with an equally brilliant yet quite different evocation of a frozen, horrifying, yet perversely enticing dreamscape of daughterhood and femininity in the kingdom of the patriarchal Father:

"Right in the middle of the empty, lit-up corridor my palms sweat with fear, I get dizzy, my throat dries up; the very air is glittering with a dry, horrible desire. I'm nobody. I'm nothing. It's so humiliating to be me. I want to be taken out of myself, life is unbearable if I'm not, so I yearn for water, for Him; I almost lie down right here on the stone floor of the corridor; I want to curl up and die. . . . I remember what it was like to be without Him at sixteen, knowing that romance danced all around me but that He wouldn't come, that somehow I blighted it, that I had a bad touch. Night after night I've fled down these halls, out of my mind with fear, trying to get out when I should have been trying to get in, carrying my shameful parts with me, of which the worst was: I don't really want to be here." SUCH WRITING is incandescent, bordering on the visionary. It is also available in The Zanzibar Cat, in which "Old Thoughts, Old Presences" was first collected, as well as another of Hidden Side's best, "How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring," and which remains available in paperback from Pocket Books. This edition of The Zanzibar Cat will cost you much less than The Hidden Side of the Moon, while yielding you far more story-for-story pleasure, and a more consistent view of Russ' distinctive perspective and talent. The latter collection, I'm afraid, is for hard-core Russ fans only, especially those wishing to trace the appearance in minor work of a theme or image reworked elsewhere in more substantial and satisfying ways -- as, for example, in the way the alienation and transformation Elaine Beach goes through as she walks into the non-human world of Broceliande, in "Main Street: 1953" (1983), one of several obscure bagatelles here, is elaborated and dramatized to remarkable effect throughout the whole interlocking sequence of Extra (Ordinary) People.

Others trapped for one reason or another into reading all of The Hidden Side of the Moon will find themselves wondering why Russ so often puts an elaborate frame device -- a letter to some unidentified yet significant Other, a story retold by someone who heard it from someone else -- around her main plots, without activating that frame into any particular significance by the story's end; or asking whether the cryptic pointlessness of "Life in a Furniture Store" (1965) or "Existence" (1975) stems from genuine dramatic or intellectual ambition or from a cranky impatience with a reading audience's desire for some sort of coherent narrative pleasure; or considering the possibility that half-page long elegies like "It's Important to Believe," no matter how delicately turned, or broad parodies like "The Cliches from Outer Space," no matter how well-justified, really have no place in a collection of short fiction at all.

My advice, then, is that if you want to read some Joanna Russ you go find The Zanzibar Cat -- or The Female Man, now at last available again, this time thanks to Beacon Press. And my hope, and faith, is that the next volume of Joanna Russ' work, be it a novel or a story collection, will not look so much like a slightly spruced-up gathering of outtakes, but will present us again with one of this country's most important writers deep in her vision, working at the top of her remarkable form. ::

Fred Pfeil, currently at Wesleyan's Center for the Humanities, is the author of the novel, "Goodman 2020," and the collection of short fiction, "Shine On."