Wed
Aug 15 2012 5:00pm

Anthropological SF: Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People

A reread of A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor ArnasonI wanted to read A Woman of the Iron People (1991) for years, but there was no UK edition and the US edition was always very hard to find. I picked up a copy in Powells in January, I read it then and I have just re-read it now. I always think of re-reading a book for the first time as completing my read, and with this book more so than ever. It’s definitely Arnason’s masterpiece and I love it.

A Woman of the Iron People is anthropological science fiction, in the tradition of The Left Hand of Darkness (post) and Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Janet Kagan’s Hellspark (post). Lixia has come on a spaceship through cold sleep to a new planet, one that has aliens. The book begins with the directives for first contact, which immediately lets you know what kind of Earth the expedition has left — a Taoist Marxist Earth with a strong ecological sense and a desire to avoid past mistakes. Then there’s a chapter from the point of view of one of the aliens, Nia, the titular woman of the Iron People. After that we’re immersed into Lixia’s point of view as she explores the world she has come to and the culture of the people she finds there.

The first thing that surprised me about A Woman of the Iron People is that it is SF. I had been expecting it to be fantasy because it won the Mythopoeic Award, and the title doesn’t pull away from that expectation. The Mythopoeic Award is for “fantasy in the spirit of the Inklings.” This is not fantasy in the spirit of the Inklings at all, it’s definitely science fiction, and it makes me wonder what the judges could possibly have been thinking.

I think they were thinking: “Hu! This is a good book. This is a much better book than anybody might expect. It is science fiction, not fantasy, but aiya, what a good book. And look, it contains stories, stories the people on the planet tell, stories about the spirits and the world, stories that assume those spirits are real. We will make the gesture that indicates we are well aware that anthropologists on our world record stories like those from their subjects. People on an alien planet believing in spirits is nothing fantastical! But the stories viewed on their own, perhaps they are fantasy? Perhaps if we squinted sideways at those stories of the Mother of Mothers and the Spirit of the Sky we could claim that this was fantasy? Hu, this is stretching things. But it certainly is a good book that deserves a lot of attention. We only have one gift to give, and our gift is the Mythopoeic Award. Nobody made us judges for a science fiction award this year, and perhaps that is a pity. We open our arms in the gesture of offering what we have. We will give what we can give. Surely nobody will be confused about this in time to come! We will ignore the wisdom of the elders that says:

If there is a space ship
A story is therefore science fiction.
Unless it also contains the holy grail,
The presence of a space ship is sufficient
For everyone to acknowledge a story as science fiction.
Aiya, this is not very difficult, people!”

Leaving aside this baseless speculation, I was genuinely surprised to find out that this was a first contact novel with awesome aliens, and I’d have made more of an effort to find it earlier if I had known. I like fantasy just fine, but I like SF a whole lot more.

A Woman of the Iron People also won the Tiptree Award, and this is easier to understand without any parables, because it really is a book with a focus on gender. The aliens live separately — the women live in usually nomadic villages, raising children. The men leave at puberty and live alone, fighting each other. They mate with the women in the spring. These are their accepted customs and their biological imperatives, but we see several edge cases. Nia is famously “the woman who loved a man,” she felt for a man as if he were a sister or female relative. For this she was driven out of her home culture and became a wanderer. We also see Tamajin and Ulzai living together, and the three brothers of Inahooli who stay close to each other and worry about the quality of their children as men are not supposed to. How much of it is biology and how much of it is custom? How much has this affected the peaceful but low tech lifestyle of the aliens? Will the presence of the human expedition change things for the better, as it is hinted it might?

Anthropological SF tends to be a journey, and this is no exception. Lixia travels with Nia, and later with the Voice of the Waterfall, a male oracle, and Derek, another human anthropologist. They travel through culture and landscape, learning them both. It’s great that these future humans are also strange and also bring problems of their own to the story. Everyone is very well characterised, in a slightly formal anthropological way that soon sucks you in. The stories, which aren’t like fantasy but are like real myths, especially like First Nations ones, are always told as part of the narrative. They illuminate the alien culture and beliefs. Unlike almost all the other anthropological SF out there, the end of the journey and connecting up with the main expedition raises more questions than it solves, and there’s a twist at the end of the book that I thought was wonderful and don’t want to spoil for you. This is a very satisfying novel.

I wish Arnason were better known and I wish she’d write more. Meanwhile, I’m very glad I finally got hold of this and I commend it to your attention.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula Award winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

28 comments
Aquila G
1. Aquila1nz
I was lucky and chanced upon A Woman of the Iron people in a second hand bookshop, many years ago. And it very helpfully had that quote on the cover to tell me I must read this book. I loved it, I'm a sucker for anthropological scifi.

And now I'm wondering if I've only read the first half!

Eleanor Arnason also wrote a shorter story (Potter of Bones) that was perfectly tailored for me: http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0210/potter.shtml I too wish she published more.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Aquila1nz: I love that story too, that was the story of Arnason's that made me think I must look out for more by her!

There is an e-edition of Woman of the Iron People in print.
James Goetsch
3. Jedikalos
The e-edition is only five bucks (just bought it!). Thanks again for your reviews, that help me find so many interesting books to read.
Katy Maziarz
4. ArtfulMagpie
Sounds lovely and right up my alley. Lucky for me, the library in which I librarian (hush; it can be a verb if I say so!) owns a copy!
Gardner Dozois
5. Gardner Dozois
Unfortunately, A WOMAN OF THE IRON PEOPLE did so badly commercially that Arnason has never subsequently been able to sell another novel to a commercial trade house. That pretty much killed her mainline career, although, as with many such cases, you could argue that it wasn't entirely her fault. Nevertheless, as I've seen again and again over the last forty years, if your novel is a big seller, it's because of the expertise of the publishing house in selling it; if if doesn't sell well, it's YOUR fault.

In spite of all that, it's a wonderful book, and I suspect its reputation is going to be very solid in retrospect.

I published many of Arnason's hwarhath stories when I was at ASIMOV'S, including "The Potter of Bones," which is a brilliant novella.
Jonathan Crowe
6. mcwetboy
I read this shortly after it came out and remember thinking rather highly of it at the time, though the details are a bit fuzzy two decades later. I'm quite sad to hear it didn't do well commercially; it deserved better.
Kristen Templet
7. SF_Fangirl
Huh? I propose bad title and cover art as a reason for failure. I don't read fantasy or historical novels and I totally thought this was one of them. Thanks to Jo, I am now better informed and may end up reading it some day

OTOH I have heard of the title for years. Perhaps because of the awards, but how did it do so poorly that she could never get another book deal? That's just odd given mindless junk and never eneding sequels that come out every month. Sad really.
Shelly wb
8. shellywb
I have to agree with SF_fangirl@7. I'd seen the cover and title, and thought it was a bad historical fantasy sex opera. Now that I know what it really is, I'll pick it up, though sadly 20 years too late to do her career any good.
Gardner Dozois
9. Gardner Dozois
If it sells, it's because of the publisher's expertise in marketing and the wonderful cover art and the hard-working sales staff. If it DOESN'T sell, no matter how bad the cover is or how misleading the marketing or how much the sales staff sluff it off, it's because the author's work has no commercial appeal and can't attract an audience.

This is a very old game.
Gardner Dozois
10. Joe Eaton
I thought Arnason's "Ring of Swords" was published later than "Woman of the Iron People." She also has a recent alt-history novella "Mammoths of the Great Plains," in the PM Press Outspoken Authors Series.
Gardner Dozois
11. Russ Allbery
I assumed that they justified the Mythopoeic Award because of the similarities with Lewis's Space Trilogy, but your explanation is completely brilliant and makes me remember all the things that I liked about the book. (Sadly, there are other things that I disliked about it, leaving me not liking it overall as much as you did. I think I found the anthropological tone more distancing, and I never managed to engage with any of the characters, which always means that I struggle with a book.)
Gardner Dozois
12. Gardner Dozois
Perhaps it was RING OF SWORDS rather than A WOMAN OF THE IRON PEOPLE that put the kibosh on things then. I do know that she was one of several authors in the 80s--Megan Lindholm was another, and had to change her name to Robin Hobb to get around this--who became the literary equivilent of "box office poison."

She's had several chapbooks published in the last couple of years, but they're by small presses. I was talking about being unable to sell to the big commercial trade houses.
Bob Blough
13. Bob
It is so sad about Arnason not being able to sell a big book to the commercial trade houses. I have every novel she published and this is my favorite as well - although RING OF SWORDS is a close second. She has never had a book of short stories published - except one of Aquaduct press' small conversation piece books. Her shorts are terrific. It was reading one in Asimov's, Gardner, that made me become an ardent fan. Right now I can't remember which one...
Wesley Parish
14. Aladdin_Sane
I found my copy of Woman of the Iron People - and the sequel, the name of which I've forgotten - in a bookshop selling unwanted books from overseas and was sufficiently intrigued by the title - obviously not your usual Military SF Yessirree, which always gets a high billing; equally obviously not your usual hardcord Hardware Rulz OK SF - to sniff out the contents. Of course, the nice words Ursula LeGuin had to say about it on the cover, also worked in its favour.

I too wish she'd written more.

BTW, in your roll-call you're missing another author who's written one of the truly great anthropological SF novels - Strangers, by Gardner Dozois. There are not many SF novels that pivot around the consequences of a too-narrow female hip pelvis on a biped with an expanded brain and thus birth-time issues. (Since Gardner Dozois won't mention it, I will.)
Alain Fournier
15. ALF
Shame to hear about the lack of sales. Loved both A Woman of The Iron People and Ring of Swords. I used to work in a bookshop
A Woman of The Iron People was one of the novels I used to recommend to people who wanted intelligent SF.

She still has it as a writer I read The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times in a recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction and it was excellent.

I read somewhere that she retired from her "mundane" job recently so hopefully that means we will be seeing more of her stories.

Hopefully one of these days someone will issue a collection the Hwarhath short stories that are set in the same universe as Ring Of Swords. Looking at ISFDB is see I managed to read only half of them.
Gardner Dozois
16. Joe Eaton
That Aqueduct Press collection, "Ordinary People," includes 3 Hwarwath stories. I'm still wondering why "Ring of Swords" would have bombed. The same sex/cross species relationship seems fairly tame in retrospect.
Gardner Dozois
17. wiredog
Completely off-topic, but I suspect many here will be interested:
A sample of "The Complete Heinlein" has his letter to Niven and Pournelle with suggestions for improvements in "The Mote in God's Eye". It starts on page 13.

http://www.virginiaedition.com/ve/TheVirginiaEdition-sample.pdf
Gardner Dozois
18. smbass
The other book "In the Light of Sigma Draconis" is listed as Part 1 of the "A Woman of the Iron People". Given the length of the Kindle book, I'm guessing these were combined into one book.
Janice Dawley
19. therem
Gardner Dozois: "If it sells, it's because of the publisher's expertise in marketing and the wonderful cover art and the hard-working sales staff. If it DOESN'T sell, no matter how bad the cover is or how misleading the marketing or how much the sales staff sluff it off, it's because the author's work has no commercial appeal and can't attract an audience."

This is such an absurd statement that I have to wonder if it is a joke. Really? Publishers always deserve the credit for the successes, but never deserve the blame for the bombs? The cover art for this book had literally nothing to do with the events of the story, and did not seem in any way designed to appeal to people who are interested in anthropological SF. I spoke with Arnason about it at a convention once, and she memorably characterized it as "a streetwalker who wants to play Hamlet." More than one person in this comment thread has mentioned that they thought the book was fantasy or historical romance because of the cover and wouldn't read it because they don't like those genres. That sure looks like a major marketing screw-up to me.

In any case, her novel "Ring of Swords" was, in fact, published after "A Woman of the Iron People". It's a shorter and more engaging read (IMO), and I highly recommend it for anyone considering one of Arnason's full-length novels. Her short stories are also wonderful. I thought I recalled her saying that someone was going to be publishing a collection of them soon, but now I can't find any details about that. I hope it's true!
Gardner Dozois
20. Gardner Dozois
I fear that you're missing my ironic tone here, Therem. As far as the publisher is concerned, the failure of a book is ALWAYS because of the author's work being unappealing to a wide audience, and NEVER because of the horrible cover they put on it, the inappropriate if not stupid marketing they did for it, the total lack of promotion and publicity, and the failure of the sales staff to "get behind it." Forget all that. The author writes books that people don't want to read. So don't buy any more of them.

The point of view of the author is often different.
Janice Dawley
21. therem
@Gardner Dozois: Whew! It was a joke! Thanks for letting me know. Unfortunately, discussion threads are often a difficult environment for subtlety. :-/
Kelly McCullough
22. KellyMcCullough
Eleanor is in my writers group, the Wyrdsmiths, and we've been seeing more of her work these last couple of years, and I hope the rest of the world gets to read it all soonish.
Alain Fournier
23. ALF
@Kelly brilliant news. Thanks for lettig us know.
Gardner Dozois
24. Rush-That-Speaks
This review was utterly delightful. Thank you.

Jo, have you read Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman? I have not yet read the Arnason, but this review brought the Mitchison very, very strongly to mind.
Gardner Dozois
25. G Benford
Amed on Strangers by Gardner Dozois -- a classic.
Also Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman -- out of print, alas.
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
Rush -- I haven't read the Mitchison, and it's not in the library and seems quite expensively out of print. Is it in anthropological in the same kind of way -- would you put it in a set with The Left Hand of Darkness?
Gardner Dozois
27. Rush-That-Speaks
The Mitchison is definitely anthropological in a similar kind of way and also slightly different ways. The aliens tend to be more alien-alien and less human-alien. The premise of the thing is actually that the narrator is a roaming space explorer/anthropologist/trader/what-have-you, and unlike most books about that sort of person it does not stay primarily on one or even two planets; she really does travel. But you also get a real chunk of what she knows about each place, and some places are more alien than others, some of them are Solaris-level weird and some are the people down the block you borrow sugar from and most are in between. The human society on Earth is really neat, too, it's one I could see as an earlier historical phase of Le Guin's Ekumen or that Delaney might have written.

Someone needs to reprint Mitchison's SF as both Memoirs and Solution Three are brilliant novels. Solution Three came out in 1975 but had been sitting in a box since about 1929, and the amazing thing is that it forms a natural dialog with other books that came out in 1975 and is the obvious precursor to Elisabeth Vonarburg.

I appear to have access to fairly cheap Mitchison but that may be a U.S. thing?
Gardner Dozois
28. D.Bratman
This is a late comment, but as administrator of the Mythopoeic Awards at the time, I can confirm that Russ Allbery @11 has made a correct assumption. The Mythopoeic Awards, though labeled "fantasy," are for mythopoeic fiction in the spirit of the Inklings, and the judges considered A Woman of the Iron People to be mythopoeic SF in the spirit of C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, and thus dead-on eligible for the award.

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