The Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Cheryl Morgan
Some books get to stay in print because they are huge commercial successes. Others because they won awards. But some books ought to say in print simply because of the light they throw on the history of science fiction. That, I suspect, is an important role of the academic press. And if is probably why Wesleyan University Press is re-issuing novels by Joanna Russ.
Why is it so important that Russ stays in print? Because she is a pivotal figure in the development of feminist science fiction, and indeed of feminism. We can learn a lot about history simply by reading Russ.
The interesting question, however, is whether what she wrote is still relevant today. Are her novels simply a product of the 1970s sex war, or do they have something to say to young women today? Bearing in mind, of course, that many young women today claim that feminism has outlived its usefulness.
The Two of Them is very much about the position of women in society. The two characters of the title are Irene Waskiewicz and Ernst Neumann. She is a rebellious tomboy teenager living in 1950s America who decides to run away from home with her family’s mysterious and handsome friend. He turns out to be an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority, and he offers he a job in the agency.
Ernst’s surname is almost certainly deliberate. He is a “new man”, someone sympathetic to the female cause. And the point of the story, I suspect, is to show that even he has limits.
The bulk of the book is taken up by an operation that takes Irene and Ernst to Ka’abah, a fundamentalist Muslim community. I suspect Russ would have got into a lot of trouble had she written the book today. Ka’abah is an obvious caricature, emphasizing all of the patriarchal aspects of Islam at the expense of anything else. It is the sort of society that Sheri Tepper would create as a source of bad guys. Russ does occasionally point out that it is something of a mockery of true Islam, but I still think the book would cause a big fuss if it were published new now.
That aside, we are in familiar Tepper territory. The men of Ka’abah treat their women abominably, and essentially keep them as pets. Many of the women go along with this because a) they have been brainwashed from birth to believe that this is the way society is supposed to be, and b) because apart from getting slapped around a lot they think that having nothing to do all day except beautify themselves, shop, and watch soap operas is a pretty cushy number. Irene finds a little girl who wants to be a poet, and determines to rescue her.
So far the book is very much over the top. The men of Ka’abah are cartoon villains. But they are not the point of the story. Certainly the complicity of the Ka’abah women in their own suppression is important. But the real meat of the story comes when Irene analyses Ernst’s reaction to the whole affair. Because, the book seems to suggest, when it comes down to it, all men are the same.
So yes, Ernst might be a Neumann. But while he might support Irene’s right to have a job and to not marry and not have kids, his basic attitude to her can be summed up as, “I’m happy to support you, but you have to understand that women are fundamentally irrational and intellectually inferior, so they can’t be let loose on their own.” Of course he never comes out and says that. The genius of the book is that Russ makes Ernst’s attitude clear while doing nothing more than describe ordinary man-woman interaction. Many women readers will recognize aspects of their male partners in Ernst.
So what is Irene to do about Ernst? She kills him.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.