A Woman of the Iron People
by Eleanor Arnason
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 7, 2022
Out of Print, but available on Kindle from Amazon, as well as other e-book formats. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Eleanor Arnason's 1991 novel A Woman of the Iron People won a Mythopoeic Award for Adult Fantasy, and tied for the inaugural Tiptree Memorial (recently renamed the Othewise Award). It was also a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial, and a Locus for Science Fiction novel. The Mythopoeic is generally awarded to fantasy in the style of the Inklings (a literary group whose most prominent members were Tolkien and C. S. Lewis). This is science fiction, but there are also elements that are fantasy, at least from a human scientific perspective. The image to the right is the current e-book, available in multiple formats. If you want a print copy you'll have to search for it used. In years prior it was common that novels were serialized in periodicals like Astounding/Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, etc, then later were issued in print. In this case the full novel appeared in hardcover first, then a year later the two individual parts came out in separate paperbacks. I don't think any of it was ever in a magazine. I'll provide cover images for the paperbacks below which may aid in your search in case you prefer print. Set on an unnamed planet orbiting Sigma Draconis, approximately 18 light years from Earth in the Constellation of Draco, it details a first contact story as several humans interact with the planet's indigenous humanoid species. The Earth they come from is definitely post-apocalyptic, both post-war and post-climate disasters, with the US and other countries having been balkanized into various smaller territories. But things were improving, technology-wise, as well as growing cooperation among the scattered groups. This is the first extra-solar expedition, a 40 year journey in cold sleep. Due to the space-time continuum, if they began a return journey right away at least 200 years would have passed on Earth. By the end of this book we don't know if anyone did return.
The hardcover featured artwork almost identical to that pictured to the left, which is the paperback of Part One, "In the Light of Sigma Draconis." The woman is Li Lixia, sociologist, anthropologist, and linguist. She takes many chances, and defies several recommendations from the council still on board their space ship, in order to remain embedded with the natives she has encountered, particularly a female named Nia who had been exiled from her tribe. The natives are humanoid but furry, sort of a cross between humans and apes, signifying a similar evolution, although later Lixia thought of a large male as more like a bear. It is hard for Lixia to determine their gender, since the female's breasts are not prominent except when nursing, and male genitalia are not noticeable either, and most wear kilts or robes anyway. They mate just once a year, in the spring, when females are in estrus. Females remain in the villages, along with both male and female children, but the males leave when they enter the Change, puberty. They set up camps around the perimeter of the village, the females coming to them in order to mate. There is no taboo against siblings mating, but there is between mother and son. When the males are no longer virile they return to the village, otherwise they take care of the herds of bowhorns, used for riding animals, as pack animals, and as a food source.
The story elements that attracted attention for the Tiptree/Otherwise (devoted to examinations of gender) include some villages where the females have sex together, even if they also mated with the males, as well as Nia's particular experience. The mating season was strictly for that, otherwise males and females remained apart. Enshi was a male from Nia's village, who some might say was effeminate, clinging to his mother and reluctant to leave at the time of the Change. He didn't care for hunting, or herding. He did leave the village though, was forced out actually, and later encountered Nia one spring. They lived together for a while, Nia bearing two children, until Enshi was killed by another male, whom Nia killed in revenge. Because of her relationship with Enshi, Nia was branded a pervert and banished from her village. Nia is of the Iron People, trained as a smith. When Lixia first meets her, Nia is living with a tribe of the Copper People. She has a smithy, a forge with bellows, hammer and anvil, but her smith and dwelling hut is some distance from the main village. Lixia and seven other humans were set down on the planet to observe, then cautiously interact with the natives if it was deemed safe. Even though there are different tribes, with slightly different customs and language, there is a trading language used between them. Each village has a shamaness, and in several cases they have rivals who wish to become the shamaness. One such conflict leads to Lixia being escorted from the village to Nia's hut. By that time Lixia had picked up enough of the language to communicate with Nia, who decides it is time for her to return to the pastures in the west.
Only the first chapter of Part One, and the last in Part Two, are written in third-person. All the others are in first-person, Lixia being the narrator. Each chapter title is a name, the first being Anasu, Nia's brother, but Nia is featured more than he is. It's more of an explanation of the mating rituals than anything else. The same applies to the third chapter, Enshi, with Nia relating their story to Lixia. The fourth chapter is about Derek, another of the Earth researchers. Since the native culture is so female-centric, all the other human males had been driven away from the villages, and they had returned to the ship. Derek had been able to avoid such conflicts for the most part, and he joins Lixia and Nia in the trek west. They encounter other villagers, one of whom is aware of Nia's "crime," and brands the humans as demons. They are able to extricate themselves from that predicament, then later have to contend with the brothers of that villager, whom they are able to convince they were the innocents in the encounter. The fact that those brothers, triplets, cooperated with each other and kept in close contact made them almost as much perverts as Nia.
Part Two is "Changing Women." In the first chapter they meet Tanajin, a woman who provides ferry service across a wide river, which is also spotted with several islands. Tanajin is like Nia, one of the changing women in this society, since she has also maintained a relationhip with a male, Ulzai. Lixia and Derek have recorders that capture all they see, hear, and speak in their reports, a device to transmit the information to the ship, and a radio to maintain contact with the ship. The ship's council thinks it is time to recall them, and Lixia and Derek are directed to meet the recall shuttle near a large lake to the south. Ulzai takes them in his boat, but there is an accident due to a large aquatic reptile. The boat capsizes, and all are separated. Lixia finally makes it to the recall location, where Derek had already ended up before her. Instead of going back to the ship right away, many other human scientists had come down to the planet, and it was decided to make a more formal approach to the natives, to ask if the humans would be allowed to stay. That wouldn't have worked at all if Nia had not been able to reunite with Lixia. Nia considers the humans strange, and not just because they don't have fur. Multiple clashes of culture and expectations later, as much as she cannot understand Lixia, she still considers her a friend, and wishes to continue the friendship. It's possible most people relate to the humans in a science fiction story rather than the aliens, but in this case my favorite is Nia.
The fantasy elements to the story involve the myths and legends Lixia hears from Nia and others. Those are just as interesting as any myths Earth people have told over the centuries, and in many cases can be viewed as metaphor and allegory, the way these people have interpreted their existence, and how and why their world is as they know it. In addition to this being an exciting journey across a strange landscape, encounters with an alien people who also sometimes seem almost human, there is a lot of political and social discourse on both the human and native side. Lixia grew up in the Free State of Hawaii, Derek in Alta California. Each had been training for the expedition, and part of that involved traveling to different parts of Earth to interact with different cultures. When Lixia first entered the Copper People's village she wasn't afraid, thinking it couldn't be any more dangerous than her trip to New Jersey, where people threatened to sacrifice her to their god, the Destroyer of Cities. None of the tribes on Nia's planet knew of war. Conflict was limited to males over territory during mating season, but always just one-on-one. No village warred against another. Each village was devoted to various crafts and working with different elements, Iron, Copper, Amber, Tin and Fur, as well as the Finely Woven Basket People, and they all traded with each other. Humans might have the advantage in technology, but I felt they had more to learn from Nia's people than the other way around.
There is one human who was adamant about not interacting with them at all, but he was of native American ancestry, his reluctance to interfere in a lower culture being obvious. It was puzzling why he was on the expedition in the first place. Perhaps he anticipated meeting a culture at the same level of technology as Earth, one that could be counted on for mutual aid and understanding. Or maybe a higher technology, which might teach many useful things. Since there has never been a sequel, and by this time it isn't likely there ever will be, I have to be content thinking about what might happen as the two cultures blend, hopefully helping each other. And I will be thinking about it for quite a while. This is highly recommended, although I have a minor criticism. Very minor. There is too much repetitive exposition about hand gestures and body language used by the natives. It's not that they don't have a complex language, which is evident in the myths recounted. I suppose since there are slight differences in language between the different clans, the gestures aid in quick communication. They include indications of agreement, either enthusiatic or reluctant, denial or negation, doubt or regret, or an inquiry for more information, along with many others. When Lixia and Derek are reunited with the rest of the crew their continued use of those gestures elicit confusion. The system itself makes sense, but I felt it could have been handled with less repetition. Another minor quibble, which might indicate the story was written several years before publication. The Berlin Wall had already fallen, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union came a few months after publication. Yet there are several of the ship's crew, Russian and Chinese, who are strong proponents of Marxism/Communism, and in the case of the Russians they were still talking about the Soviet Union. This has to be set several hundred years into our future, so it's either an alternate universe, or perhaps it is inidicative of the author's political philosophy. Those things aside, it's a thoughtful, intense, informative narrative, recommended for all the things I chose to mention, along with many I withheld.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.