Derik Badman's Journal

2020-05-12 08:01

Seems too cold out lately for early May, still going out with two layers on for my morning walk (flannel shirt and sweatshirt).

This morning I finished Joanna Russ' The Two of Them (1978). I was so close to finishing last night but didn't want to get to that point where I was falling asleep while at the ending, and I didn't want to rush through just to finish it before I fell asleep. I've not read a ton of Russ' work, though I guess this is the third novel of hers I've read (and a short story or two). This short novel is about a "Trans-Temporal Authority" agent named Irene. As a youth in the 50's she ran off with an agent name Ernst (we see in flashback their first meeting) and then he becomes her trainer/lover/father-figure. About half the plot takes place on this other world that is vaguely futuristic arabic-islamic, where Irene ends up taking away the daughter of their hosts, because the girl wants to be a poet and on her world that is not allowed. Irene rages against the chauvinism/sexism of the culture on the planet, so she basically forces the father to sign some papers so she can "rescue" the daughter (who is not exactly abducted since she agrees to go).

I've seen some criticism of this book for its portrayal of the pseudo futuristic arabic-islamic world. It has plenty of clich├ęd elements and tropes, though I think that is partly on purpose, as the in-world logic of these people is that they basically started this planet and adopted this whole culture. The way they treat woman can seem facile and awful in its portrayal, but what becomes obvious in the second half of the novel, as Irene, Ernst, and the girl are travelling away from the planet on a ship, is that Irene's milieu is not really better. She begins to realize how much the organization she works for is sexist and how Ernst treats her is not all she thought it was. So the one cultural portrayal sheds light onto the other.

This is not the type of science fiction where everything is logical and explained. Whatever a "Trans-Temporal Authority" is remains vague at best. It's not about that, it's about the cultural criticism and the messaging and the women. Towards the end Russ starts to insert an I-author narrator, offering versions of the story "I was going to..." that at first is a little jarring, primarily I think for how late it comes into the book, and how unexpected it (still) is in science fiction. But I also think it works to bring... reality, the reality of this world the book exists in, to the fore as another part of the story.

I've got another book of Russ's work The Adventures of Alyx, which includes her earlier sword and sorcery stories, coming soon, and I am looking forward to reading it.