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

I 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.


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