The Two of Them

The Two of Them

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The Two of Them by Joanna Russ

Irene, a rebellious product of an American 1950s upbringing, has fled from a repressive and sexist society into a life of apparent equality and adventure as part of the elite Trans-Temporal Authority’s cadre of travelers. Under the tutelage of Ernst, a friend/lover and teacher/father, Irene has achieved status and dignity. Irene and Ernst are assigned to a Muslim world where they meet Zubedeyeh, a young girl whose creativity is being transformed into madness by the male chauvinistic society in which she lives. Vowing to rescue her, Irene unleashes a destructive cycle of violence. Originally published in 1978, The Two of Them is a powerful portrait of a future sexist society. This modern classic conveys its politics with rigor and complexity, in a story filled with suspense and unforgettable characters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819567604
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.41(d)

About the Author

JOANNA RUSS is a prolific author who is universally regarded as one of the finest science fiction novelists of the past 50 years. She combines a feminist perspective with a sophisticated style. SARAH LEFANU is a writer and broadcaster in the U.K. and author of In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988).

Read an Excerpt


Here they are. They're entirely in black, with belted tabards over something like long underwear that make them look like the cards in Alice, though nobody here has heard about that. They're not — at the moment — wearing guns. Both are tall; the elder (grey-haired, clean-shaven, approaching fifty) has the beaked nose, high cheek-bones, and deep-set dark eyes of a desert prophet; the younger (by twenty years) is a stockier sort with the flat dish-face of a Slav peasant: dab of a nose, washed-out eyes, and that no-color, fine hair Russians go in for when they forget to be blond. They're white, but this must be understood conventionally; it excludes snow-color and paper-color. Around them is the cave of Ala-ed-Deen, a little tacky perhaps and too much early Manet in the moveables; there are embroidered pillows, filigreed screens, inlaid tables, little tabourets, figured hangings, heaps of rugs, everything fretted and pierced and decorated with endlessly repeated geometrical motifs; but there are no plants anywhere, living or in pictures, and there are no pictures of anyone or anything.

The Jewish prophet stands, leaning against a wall hanging, his arms folded except that now and again one strays free and he taps his thumb thoughtfully against his teeth; the other sits cross-legged on cushions, reading aloud from a large book, which is illuminated like a medieval manuscript. This is how the book goes:

And the maiden Enees-el-Jelees was the daughter of the Wezeer Abd-el-Hassan, who served in that time Sultan Haroon-er-Rasheed may his name be exalted forever — thought they'd miss that — and he had given him Budr-el-Badr to wife. And this was the manner of the appearance of Enees-el-Jelees, she was like unto the letter Aleph, her gait was as the Oriental willow, her eyebrows met across her forehead, her face appeared shining as the full moon, and upon her cheek was a mole like ambergris. Three days after, as she went with her maidens into the bath — tittering like mad, I suppose — there appeared to them a jinneeyeh of the most frightful and hideous aspect, having upon each shoulder three arms and upon each arm three hands, and long black nails of surpassing filthiness and blackness — like every other Jinn in the book — and thick lips and a black face — racists — and tangled hair like a cloud of smoke, and this jinneeyeh spake unto Enees-elJelees, spake for God's sake, spake, saying 'Fear not, thou temptation to God's creatures, I am Muslimeh, that is to say, of the believing Jinn,' and snatching up the maiden Enees-el-Jelees, carried her swiftly through the air

Snapping the book shut. "They're cracked," and if you yourself had been there you would have noticed that the book's cover — which resembled embossed leather a little and embossed paper a little and cloth not at all — was really quilted polyethylene bonded to some sort of fill. As is the surface of the tabouret on which it now lies. (Both are intricately and elaborately figured in red, blue, and gold.)

The younger adds with venom, "Racists!"

The elder points out mildly that the culture is third generation and undoubtedly won't last. "Once they get over the excommunication —"

"Did Islam do that? I'd no idea they were so sensible. Throw them out on their ear, right."

"Isn't there anything ...?" (pointing to the book).

"No," she says, getting to her feet in one motion, her dead-colored Polish eyes most nasty, no thick lips, no black hair, no nine hands; "There is a prince, see, and he's graceful as the Oriental willow, his face is as the full moon, he has a mole like ambergris, and his brows meet. He is addressed as 'thou temptation to God's creatures.' His name is Mes'ood. Everybody's got a name, even the Jinn. What'sher-name, no, not this one" (stabbing the air in the direction of the book) "sees him through the lattice of the window of the hareem as he's playing goff. That's not what you think; it's a kind of polo. She throws him a note composed of sixteen classical verses, quoted in full. Her gait is like the Oriental willow, her face like the full moon, her brows meet, and she has a mole, et cetera. He sends her a note composed of twenty-four classical verses. They meet. Then it's 'Efreets again. To say that you spit. Guess what color 'Efreets. Twelve hundred pages. I told you they were cracked."

He says, "But The Thousand and One Nights is that long, Irene." (Saying it the British way, I-ree-nee.)

She says, "The Arabian Nights comes from a genuine culture. It wasn't published last week."

He says, "Ah! so much?" meaning not the book's date of publication but her own dislike, and she adds, "Mind your business. Conscience Neumann. No advice now. You report later, that's your business."

She says then, "I know what it is, Ernst; you're fretting because you can't sit down properly. It's a damned imposition, but they do have benches or something; they're mentioned in the book. I'll find one."

He produces from his barrel chest a sound like a rumble: "I can stand." He adds, "I didn't ask you here, Sklodowska, don't blame me."

Irenee Waskiewicz throws back her head, laughing, and slides delightedly down the wall and onto a heap of rugs. She puts her head on one bent knee, hair falling around her face. He has an immense power to please her and is himself vastly pleased by it; this name — Maria Sklodowska Curie, her Nobel prize-winning daughters Eve and Irene, all three countrywomen of hers, all three famous; she's hardly ever so pleased, not even when he calls her Mikolaj Kopernik. Sklodowska means: I know your anger is only put on, Kopernik is for admiring surprise, and the name of Augusta, Lady Lovelace, Byron's daughter, whose mother was a mathematician, who bred racehorses, and (for the eccentric genius Babbage, who invented and built the first computer, out of wood) created binary numbers ... well, Lady Lovelace means something else.

Some things to know: that she was his pupil for seven years before she became one of The Gang. That there are people who like titles and so call The Gang something else; these two just call it The Gang. That earlier he had got her out of a very bad place, which was something like this place, though not to look at. That she's been assigned here and didn't want to come, though it's supposed to be some sort of vacation, an Honor Guard to a diplomatic mission. That upon learning his name, she said, "Yes, of course, you are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life; of course, your name is Ernst" (and later, "It has always been my ambition to love someone of the name of Ernst; that name inspires absolute confidence." He had answered, dazzled, "Kopernik!" for they shared a culture — if not quite the same world). That this dignified Jewish refugee, who had been tormented by the other schoolboys in England, had chosen — when his deep, dark, beautiful eyes were set in a face very much younger than it is now — or had been given (it was a long time ago) his new name: the earnest new man. That Waskiewicz was given her at birth, likewise Irene, but that she saved herself in adolescence by thinking of herself as Irenee Adler, the woman. A sample:

He: Who owns, names.

She (curiously): Don't you mean "He who?"

He: I do not.

He says, "Do you know, Irenee, I think we were sent here because we look so unlike the people here. To be impressive. You know?"

"Impressive, my eye," she says. "In long black underwear? We're as impressive as hatstands. If The Gang ever wore dress uniforms, we'd all drop dead of the shock."

He thinks: You'd complain in Heaven, just to keep your credit up. Ernst does not ordinarily attend to the form of words other people use, perhaps because of his childhood (five countries in six years), and having been able to translate Irene as soon as he met her — though no one else can, or she talks that way to no one else — says only:

"Oh sure, there is the contrast." As usual, his "sure" is attended by the ghost of a polite, a European "surely."

She says, "Seriously, Ernst, for myself I can see it but you're Semitic enough. Damn it, you look Semitic. Have they changed themselves that much?"

He nods. "I've seen them. Got here yesterday, you know. With the gravity set a fifth lower, they can do anything they like, I suppose. Within reason. But they stay small. So we —"

"Are Neanderthals," she says. "Yes, of course, great ugly beasts. Only bigger. And how we stand out in all this clutter!" He can't read her voice now. When Irene is really thinking she becomes opaque to him and he automatically switches to her words.

He says, "Well, there's nothing to do. Nobody expects a row. Unless you start one. I am worried about you, Irene."

"Me?" she says. "Oh, I'll try, but I won't get to first base." There's a moment's gap. He doesn't know what first base is. They look for a moment at each other and register — momentarily — that they've again hit one of those minute differences between the United States of America and the North American Commonwealth. Both of them know about Hitler, about Stalin, about the two World Wars, about Mao, but now they can't (for the life of them) remember which world is which. One reason they're so often paired for work in The Gang.

She says, "I told you about bezbol."

"No, I told you."

"Ah, yes. Different rules."

"Lady Lovelace!" he says, shaking his head in admiration.

She says, closing her eyes patiently, "Ernst, again tonight? At your age?" So now you know what "Lady Lovelace" means.

At night, half-asleep, two shadows, her breath warm on his bare shoulder, that poky ridge his lust or his hipbone, which?

One sleepy voice says, "Alabama."

"Arkansas," says the other.



"Another A? Armenia."



"It's real."

"The dickens it is."

"Yes it is."

She says, sleepy and exasperated, "What I have to put up with."

"But Irenee," (pedantically) "it is really true in my world. So it's all right."

She sits up in bed with a hoarse ultimatum: "Common names only!"

There is an earthquake among the shadows, someone's arms, his or hers, a dark arm, a light arm, cross-barred in moonlight, impossible to see clearly.

A loud "Ow!"

"Oh my." Concern and movings about.

"Huh! Aruns." She adds, "The Seychelles."


"Seychelles, the. The Seychelles. S at the beginning to hook up with Aruns, which has an S at the end."

"Are you sure —"

She sits up, desperate, in the moonlight: "My living God, why do we always go on like five-year-olds?"

"Everyone does." He means: lovers always do.

She's silent for a moment, and — not moving or speaking in the darkness — vanishes. Then she says, "All right, let's stop. Let's fuck."

He laughs helplessly in the dark: "You're so graceful."

A flurry, a lot more moving around.

"I said the Seychelles. Listen, next time let's stick to names we both know, right?"

A long silence. The two of them as isolated in unseeing as a raft on the sea, a raft, holding one or two survivors, which slides about on the watery element effectively enough but is so small that it's impossible to spot from the air or from a ship, and therefore it's alone.

She says bitterly, "Playing games — !"

That was two nights ago.

The old, familiar misery, the unmistakable flavor of it: involuted, impossible, self-caused. Lying awake when he's not, exiled to some awful promontory of consciousness, shadows, and wishing. Wishing what. She turns, stretches carefully (for something to do), and stares into the dark. Tears in her eyes. Maybe count until morning, see what large aggregations you can come up with.

He gasps. Over and over again. Standing neatly on a desert island, like the one in the cartoons, carrying the valise he carried so long ago from country to country, the sand always on the point of giving out under his feet, soon he'll be standing on water. He can't move, switched off from the neck down. Anyway, there's nowhere to go.

He's having a nightmare.

Tears of self-pity in her eyes, she shakes the sleeper awake; she looks impatient (if anyone had been awake to see her), brow furrowed and underlip caught between her teeth. She shakes him urgently, quite selfishly.

"What? What?" He comes up a bit wildly, not with the full force of the dream but disjointed, alarmed, not quite awake. She draws back more gently, better now that he's really there, and since she's happier, suddenly more considerate.

She says softly, "What's the matter?"

He groans, protesting at being pulled out of sleep, "Ahhh, no, no!"


He says, "I was on this damn island with this damn suitcase. Going to drown, you know."

She says, "I don't think either of us wants to go tomorrow." She scratches the end of her nose. Almost conversationally she adds, "Why on earth were you carrying a suitcase? What was in it?"

"A Jew," he says. She looks imperceptibly at him, then down at her knees. "Oh my." She adds, "Oh, I don't think you look as Jewish as all that."

After a silence he says: "I don't want to go, either."

Ernst Neumann wants to retire.

He's been playing with the idea for several years now, that is, for some time after he trained Irenee Waskiewicz, of whom he thinks often as a kind of junior partner or an heir, sometimes (with sophisticated surprise) as his daughter, sometimes (with genuine simplicity) as his son. He's proud of her; he's beginning to be tired. It'll be some time before his mental field becomes so massively or so completely reversed from what it was, but he likes to play games with the idea. He knows that Irenee still thinks she will live forever and this amuses him and touches him, although he's careful not to let her know it. (She would deny it.) At times — to himself — he thinks, "When I stop working, I'll —" or simply "When I retire," and the words are sweet in themselves, quite apart from any clear idea. He doesn't think of it seriously yet. He thinks of keeping bees or raising roses. Outwardly he has never been better; he knows that. He also knows that his childhood deformed him or scarred him in some way he'll never get over, or rather he believes that everyone's childhood does so, though he's not aware of making a certain distinction between his own childhood and his pupil's, that he is scarred but she is deformed. The new place poses similar dangers for both kinds of mental process, he knows that. His nightmare, sometimes disguised, sometimes not, has accompanied him most of his life like the famous Examination Dream, across four worldly continents, across more worlds than continents, more years than worlds. Foreign service families, army brats, and people like that have this common quality, the ability to get along anywhere and be at home nowhere.

It occurs to him that Irenee is not like that; you can see the strain that new places put on her, she has no detachment and insists on being truly at home everywhere, she doubles up and groans with frustrated exhortation at every change.

Scarred, he thinks. Deformed, he thinks.

He says, "You can't sleep?"

There's a third party to this triangle on Ka'abah, a little man who's a bit fussy but quite harmless, really, and next to our heroes, although not unnaturally small for his own race and certainly not thin, he is of such a different appearance, such different bearing, of such a manner and such sidelong, self-important, busy ... but you've already ended the sentence. He's working at a computer outlet, attending to family business. His name is Wezeer (this is a common tide now) 'Alee Shems-er-Nehar, also 'Alee the grandson of Bekkar, and if you want to know which it is, it's both. These people stand upon newly invented ceremonies, which are their lights, and they do the best they can by their lights.

But what color, what shape, what pattern, and of what intensity are the lights of the son of Bekkar (also his name)? Have they shone steadily all his life? Do they occasionally go out? What is their function, their operation, their significance, and their flicker (or pulsation) in the matrices of his mind?

Don't shoot the player piano; it's doing the best it can.

Ka'abah has almost nothing in the way of public accommodation, and what there is (they don't encourage strangers) has been severely taxed by the diplomatic-economic meeting now in progress. So 'Alee Shems-er-Nehar is playing host. As he enters his mock-Arabian cozy-corner between the curtains (the right height for him, but they keep hitting Irene in the eye) both strangers have the same flash of memory: that Richard halved an iron bar with his sword and Sala-ed-deen a feather. This much they have in common, probably from the same novel.


Excerpted from "The Two of Them"
by .
Copyright © 1978 Joanna Russ.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Marge Piercy

“The Two of Them is an extraordinary novel.”

Marilyn Hacker

“Beyond questions of genre or gender, Joanna Russ is one of the best prose writers working in the English language today. The Two of Them is informed throughout by her intelligence, wit and imagination…by her vision of the pertinence and necessity of speculative fiction to feminists.”

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