The Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
Irene (apparently pronounced I-ree-nee “in the British way”, which, er, isn’t true) was taken from 1950s USA to a parallel universe where humanity has spread out into the galaxy and settled many planets – and many other universes. Her rescuer is an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority called Ernst Neumann. The name is obviously a pseudonym, perhaps indicating that Ernst hails from a similar background. He chose Irene because she did not fit in her milieu, too headstrong, too tomboyish, too “masculine”. And so he took her away with him. And now the two of them are partners, and lovers, sent on missions to various planets.
The Two of Them opens with Irene and Ernst on the world of Ka’abah – or rather, inside the world of Ka’abah, as the inhabitants live and work in tunnels beneath the inhospitable surface. They are also Muslims. Well, caricatures of Muslims. The women have the social and legal standing of chattel, are kept in purdah, and are apparently so content, and indeed complicit, with their lot they spend all their time beautifying themselves and developing their “feminine personality”. A way of life to which Irene vehemently objects. And because she is so unlike the women of Ka’abah, she is often mistaken for, and treated like, a man.
When Zubeydeh, the twelve-year-old daughter of their host, states she wants to be a poet, an occupation forbidden to women – in fact, all occupations are forbidden to women: Irene even has an encounter with a celebrated female impersonator who plays women on stage… When Zubeydeh is forbidden to become a poet, Irene decides to take the young girl with her when she and Ernst leave. She also wants to take Zubeydeh’s mother, who is almost permanently medicated, and Zubeydeh’s aunt, who was a poet, and is now an inmate of an asylum. But she can’t; and only Irene, Ernst and Zubeydeh depart Ka’abah.
Onboard the spaceship taking them from the world, Zubeydeh “adopts” a young boy who seems to have been abandoned by his parents or guardians. When Irene realises that Ernst plans to institutionalise her on their return to Center because of the events on Ka’abah, she runs away – and takes both Zubeydeh and the boy with her. Back to the world she left. Although now, of course, she is much changed:
You’re in a dress and and coat, although you’ve drawn the line at high heels; you’re wearing penny loafers with your nylons. (p 219)
The depiction of Islam in The Two of Them would only play today on Fox News. It is ignorant and Islamophobic. Russ may have been writing a feminist sf novel about the role of women, but she has cherrypicked common misconceptions about women in Islamic societies as part of her argument, and ignored everything else. This is not an Islamic society, it’s a made-up society based on anti-Islamic myths and clichés.
Russ’s worldbuilding is not helped by her decision to use her own latinisation for Arabic names – perhaps in an effort to render them more accurately. So علي, Ali, Russ spells through the novel as ‘Alee. Which just looks plain weird. Arabic words that are quite common in English, such as wazir, are also given variant spellings.
There’s a good story in The Two of Them, and the prose shows Russ at her best. Toward the end, Russ even begins breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader. The narrative also discusses alternative outcomes of Irene’s story, probabilistic worlds and events that would naturally arise out of the premise of the Trans-Temporal Authority. Her depiction of Irene, contrasting both her lack of agency in 1950s USA and her agency in the Trans-Temporal Authority, makes an effective argument. But the attempt to contrast it with Islam is a definite mis-step. The ending at least ties back to Irene’s origin, and not her adventures in the first half of the novel.
I don’t honestly know if The Two of Them is, well, salvageable. Strip out the depiction of Islam, and use a completely invented society, and the novel would be much stronger. And far less offensive. True, the book is forty years old. And written by an American, at a time when American sf was generally considered the only mode of science fiction… because so little sf from other languages was translated, and then often presented as a curiosity – cf 1970s anthologies of translated Soviet science fiction – and the most successful British sf was transatlantic in flavour… So, it’s no real surprise The Two of Them saw publication – although I am surprised The Women’s Press reprinted it eight years later.
And yet… According to Gwyneth Jones in her collection of critical essays, Imagination/Space, Russ’s The Two of Them was written as a deliberate response to Suzette Haden Elgin’s ‘For the Sake of Grace’, a Coyote Jones story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in May 1969. In Elgin’s story, also set in a society based on Islam, poetry is the only route to fame and fortune available to women. Zubeydeh (Russ even uses the same names in her novel) remains determined to become a poet, even though failure caused her aunt to go “mad”. Russ was not responding to Elgin’s depiction of Islam, but to her central premise of the failure by women to reach male-imposed standards driving those women insane – which in turn harkens back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. This, at least, explains Russ’s decision to create the society of Ka’abah – although it does not, I would argue, excuse the hash she made of it. Ka’abah was not necessary to continue the conversation begun by Gilman, although it was to directly address Elgin’s story.
I suppose it could be argued Russ’s invented society is peripheral to the main argument of The Two of Them. And it’s certainly true there’s more to the novel than just Ka’abah… It might also be argued the sections set on Ka’abah are intended to be humorous – it’s not a commentary on Islam, it’s certain elements of the religion exagerrated for comic, and/or parodic, effect. Except it doesn’t read funny, and it doesn’t feel funny. And that interpretation only really works if the reader is aware of the Elgin story (even if they have not read it, which I have not), which I was not until beginning this review.
The Two of Them does some things really well, things that were characteristically, er, Russ-ian (Russ-esque?). It’s a much cleverer book than it initially seems, and much more experimental narratively as it progresses. Irene is a great character (although I was less impressed by Ernst). But there’s that massive hurdle in the first third of the book to get over. And I don’t think the novel makes its case well enough for it to be forgivable.