I could say that I read this book, by Joanna Russ, to continue my education into feminist sf. That would partly be true. It does, however, make it sound like my reading of it was like adding bran to my muesli; something I felt I ought to do. And initially, there might have been a smidgeon of this in my thinking: I’d heard about The Female Man, for example, but hadn’t read it until last year. And it was so… amazing, and confronting, and challenging, that I realised I had to read more Russ to keep experiencing that. While also getting the chance to educate myself. It’s the same thing I get with reading history: I love the knowledge, and I love knowing it too.
The Two of Them is quite different from The Female Man. It’s a much more conventional narrative, in that it generally keeps to the same point of view throughout and has a generally straightforward timeline. There is some leaping between past and future, but that’s not exactly radical.
That said, there are some glimpses of the Russ I was expecting from The Female Man. There are instances of the author speaking to the audience, questioning her own narrative – not just her techniques, but the structure of the narrative itself. And this only happens towards the end of the story, so all of a sudden the reader is struck both with the fact of the story being a construction, and that the narrator may not be entirely trustworthy. That’s quite disconcerting.
The story revolves around a woman who was a teen in the US in the 1950s. She ends up working for a shadowy organisation that is never fully explained (which reminded me of the company in Iain Banks’ Transition, to the extent that I wonder whether he was influenced by it), and finds herself on a planet that is clearly based on the idea of a Muslim world. There, she meets a young girl who wants to be a poet, but only men are allowed to be. (Incidentally, it was at that point I got a weird feeling of deja vous. Flicking to the front of the books, I discovered a note thanking Suzette Haden Elgin for allowing Russ to use the characters from her short story “For the Sake of Grace” – I know I’ve read, sometime, in an anthology I can’t remember the name of. This is a fascinating example of intertextuality.)
The story moves into an exploration of issues concerning colonisation – does she have a right to interfere with how this planet’s society works? – and, of course, patriarchy and paternalism and coming face to face with the unconscious sexism that she’s been living with for years. Russ develops this particularly well, because the reader too is largely unaware of the sexism: it’s not like those stories where the characters are oblivious but the reader is shouting in rage. The discovery, the revelation, of how her personal relationships have been functioning is as surprising, and horrifying, and I guess depressing to the reader (well, this reader anyway) as for her.
Tied in with this meaty, crunchy (hi Tansy) exploration of issues, there’s also a scifi/adventure story. The SF element isn’t especially overt: there are space ships, and maybe time travel, but they’re just a part of the book’s reality – they don’t rate a great detailed explanation, because they don’t matter, in the same way that a toaster or a radio don’t rate explanation in a mainstream novel. It’s also short, at around 180 pages.
I can’t wait to read the essays on this novel in on Joanna Russ, which I’ve had sitting on my shelf for ages. I’m sure there are all sorts of issues and hints and allusions that I’ve missed, because they were specific to Russ’ context. This is the other thing I love about Russ’ writing: it allows for multiple re-readings, because it’s so complex – as well as being a great read.