Interview: Eleanor Arnason
By Lyda Morehouse
29 March 2004
Eleanor Arnason is one of the often-unsung Grand Dames of Feminist Science Fiction. Though she began her writing career in the '70s, her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the very first James Tiptree, Jr. award, as well as the Mythopoeic Fantasy award in 1991. Since then, Arnason has been slowly, quietly, some might even say subversively, gaining notoriety. This year, her novella "Potter of Bones" (Asimov's, Sep. 02) and the short story "Knapsack Poems" (Asimov's, May 02) are on the Nebula final ballot. She will be the guest of honor at this year's WisCon.
Lyda Morehouse: For the readers who might not be familiar with your work, what is the first thing they should read? Ring of Swords? Was that the first appearance of the Hwarhath?
Eleanor Arnason: Yes, start with Ring of Swords.
LM: I'm reading that book right now. Can I just say I love Nicholas?
EA: He's tremendous.
LM: He really is. I haven't finished it so don't tell me how it ends!
EA: My friend Patrick, who works with homeless people, hates unhappy endings because so many of his people come to unhappy ends. So he won't let me write unhappy endings. Ring ends happily.
LM: Okay, so the first book was Ring of Swords. Do you remember the inspiration for the Hwarhath?
EA: It was Jesse Helms. [laughs] This was back in the middle-to-late '80s, when there was this big stink over the National Endowment for the Arts funding gay artists.
LM: I remember that. Mapplethorpe. That was the big issue.
EA: It occurred to me that Jesse Helms attacking this kind of funding and the people defending it both seemed to be arguing that there was something inherently natural about heterosexuality, and not about homosexuality. The people who were defending gay artists seemed to me to be really on the defensive. I thought to myself, "how about a culture where people are normally gay, and where heterosexuality is the perversion." I was basically trying to flip all of Jesse Helms' prejudices and to write a book that would cause him to have cardiac arrest if he read it. [laughs]
I started with that idea. What was fascinating was that when I began working out what the Hwarhath were like I realized that there are many excellent, excellent arguments against heterosexuality. If all sex for pleasure is gay sex, then there are no unwanted/unplanned children. I also noticed that one of the things that was happening in the Hwarhath culture, as I was developing it, was that it was sex-segregated, which is the way an enormous number of human cultures are. We assume this is a bad thing. It may or may not be. For example, in places like Saudi Arabia, male doctors cannot examine female patients, so you obviously have to have female doctors. There are situations in which sex segregation opens up careers for women that may not exist in an integrated society which is sexually prejudiced.
So, it started with Jesse Helms. I was gradually trying to work out the consequences of my premises. I ended up liking the Hwarhath a lot. I just think they're. . .
LM: Well, they're wonderfully pragmatic among other things. Very strange and very alien.
EA: Yes. My feeling on the Hwarhath is that the basic tone of their culture is what you would get if Iceland had not converted to Christianity in the year 1000, but instead had converted to Confucianism.
EA: I have this mental image of the Confucian missionaries sailing into Reykjavik harbor in the year 1000 in these giant ocean-going junks. They would all be scholars in long silk brocade gowns and black scholar's hats, carrying scrolls and fans.
But, the Hwarhath emphasis on family is both Chinese and medieval Scandinavian. The sex segregation would be more Chinese than Viking.
LM: But the warrior aspect would be Viking.
EA: Yes, very much. Then I pulled other things in. The plays are Japanese Noh plays. I read everything I could find in English translation about Japanese Noh plays when I was working on that novel. The funky pottery is Japanese pottery. The brocade dressing gowns are again Japanese, although they could be Chinese.
As for the tremendous pragmatism of the Hwarhath, there are ways in which both the people of the Icelandic sagas and the Chinese are very pragmatic. They are both people who have a totally different attitude toward religion than we do. The Icelanders were not very good pagans who became not very good Christians.
LM: Icelanders are terrible Christians. . . didn't they become Unitarians? [laughs]
EA: They became Unitarians in North America. The established church in Iceland was Lutheran, but when they came to North America they looked at the German and Norwegian Lutheran churches and they said, "These people are mad!" The closest thing they could find to Icelandic Lutheranism were the Unitarians.
So that was the start of the Hwarhath.
LM: Did you spend any time in China?
EA: I was in Hong Kong for about a week when I was sixteen. But the formative experience of my mother's life was that fact she grew up in China. She graduated from the American high school in Shanghai.
I've written about this a number of times. My mother was an American who grew up in China. My father grew up in an Icelandic immigrant community in Canada. They were both people who were suspended between two cultures. I got major doses of both China and Iceland growing up. The house was full of Chinese literature in translation. There was a wonderful, wonderful book -- the title in translation is Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. It is seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Chinese ghost and faerie tales. It is awesome. I still have that book, although it's totally crumbling. I grew up on that. I also grew up on the Icelandic sagas. So that stuff is really deeply soaked into me.
The Hwarhath are both Chinese and medieval Icelanders. With fur.
LM: How many Hwarhath stories are there?
EA: There are supposed to be ten, but there are actually eleven. There's this title I've had in my mind for years for the collection of short stories -- Ten Examples of Contemporary Hwarhath Fiction. But, there are now eleven examples.
In addition to the Hwarhath collection I have this idea that I want to write five stories about Dapple. I've got three stories done. I've got a fourth more than half done. The first one is when she's a baby, the second one is when she's twenty, the third one is when she's forty. In the one I'm currently working on, she's sixty. And then I'll write one when she's eighty, so that you're looking at someone's life in twenty-year intervals.
I've got both the Hwarhath collection and then this idea which is kind of a novel in short stories.
I wrote the "The Hound of Merin" (Xanadu 1, ed. Jane Yolen & Martin H. Greenberg, Tor 1993), which is the first short story, while I was working on the novel. Then the short stories that just kept happening. The second one might have been "The Lovers"(Asimov's, Jul 1994) though I'm not really sure.
I really, really like short stories that are interconnected. That's just a neat art form. So there are some things that go through many of the short stories. One of them is the General Eh Manhata, who is the founding father of the dominant Hwarhath civilization. He's also an awful person. He's very clearly, in my mind at least, heterosexual. He suffers from a great deal of internalized heterophobia.
LM: [laughs] I just love hearing you say that!
EA: Yes. He's in "The Lovers." He's in "The Actors" [Fantasy & Science Fiction, Dec. 1999]. He shows up in passing. He's in "The Hound of Merin," and I think that's the only time you see him on stage. In the rest of the stories he's just this person who shows up in plays or is talked about.
So you have this culture in which heterosexual sex is taboo except for the purposes of procreation, and once they have artificial insemination it ends totally. And yet the person who founded their dominant civilization is a closeted heterosexual.
LM: That's hilarious.
EA: Yes, although he's a profoundly scary guy in good part because he's rather deeply conflicted.
And then I have in the Dapple story. . . let me see if I can remember his name. He's the awful Ettin General. . .
LM: The guy who keeps showing up missing limbs every time we see him?
LM: I love him. [laughs]
EA: He's great. He's the perfect Hwarhath male. He's devoted to the women in his family. He loves women and children and he kills men. He's totally loyal to his family. Ettin Taiin, that's it. I've got him in "Dapple" [Asimov's, Sep. 1999] and he's in "Potter of Bones" as an old man walking around half-blind with a staff. In the next Dapple story, his mom finally dies. He's just heartbroken.
LM: That's too bad. She's a fantastic matriarch.
EA: She is, but she's a hundred and ten by the "Potter of Bones," I mean, she just can't keep going! But, anyway, I love him because he's the perfect Hwarhath male and in some ways he's absolutely horrible. In the story I'm working on now he's got a nephew with the same name as he, who is a perfectly good Hwarhath male, but just not as brutal as his uncle. So, you know, he's kind of like slacking off from the high standards of his uncle. He's willing to let men live that his uncle would have just butchered. [laughs]
So I just kept writing these stories and writing these stories.
LM: Do you have a favorite?
EA: "Potter of Bones."
LM: But you had some trouble selling it.
EA: Oh, did I have trouble. Yes. Thank God for Gardner Dozois. I sent it to both Fantasy and Science Fiction and to Analog and both of them said that the story didn't work because the theory of evolution was already known to the readers so it wouldn't come as a surprise that my heroine had discovered the Hwarhath theory of evolution. I felt they were missing the point of the story. They were very nice rejection letters, but then Dozois just bought it, no questions.
The story is about a lot of things, but what it's mostly about is what happens when you discover something that is true and you cannot convince other people of it. I don't know if you know the story about the guy, a doctor in the nineteenth century [Semmelweis -- ed.], who figured out what was killing women after childbirth was that the doctors who were delivering babies weren't washing their hands. Because there was no germ theory at the time, he could not convince anyone of it. He had the way to save the lives of thousands upon thousands -- maybe millions -- of women and no one would listen to him. He died, if I'm remembering correctly, in an insane asylum. People just said to him, "why would washing your hands make a difference?"
That's what "Potter of Bones" is about, what do you do when you can't tell people the truth.
LM: Yeah, and when you're ahead of your time. It's a kind of avant-garde story in a way too.
EA: She turns it into art, which is maybe what a lot of us do when we know something too soon.
LM: That we have no words for.
EA: Yeah, there was a lot she didn't know.
LM: So, "Potter of Bones" is your favorite story, what's your least favorite? Or one that you wish you could rewrite, expand. . .?
EA: The most frustrating one is the one that hasn't sold yet. No, I shouldn't say that. It sold to George Zebrowski for a new Synergy anthology. It hasn't come out yet.
LM: Is this "The Garden"?
EA: Yes, George bought "The Garden," then his deal for publishing Synergy fell apart. Then, I sold it to Rob Killheffer who never published because, I guess, Century has never come out again. Then, George came back into business, he got another deal for Synergy, and he wanted the story again so now he has it again.
LM: It's a curse! But, "The Garden" is an interesting story. Do you want to tell people about it?
EA: "The Garden" is two things. It's my Ferdinand the Bull story. For people who don't know it, it's a marvelous children's book. "The Garden" is about a young man who doesn't want to go out into space and be a warrior; he wants to stay at home on the home planet and cultivate his garden, which he can't do. A lot of the story is about sex stereotyping, but one of the things I was trying to do with the story was a story about not only future science, but future alien science.
One of the deep defects in science fiction -- you see this with hard science fiction writers all the time -- is that someone will set a story five hundred years in the future, and their science is absolutely the science of the moment. Well, if you go back five hundred years in our culture, that takes you to 1500. You've missed Newton and you're still dealing with. . . well, I can't remember when Copernicus was. Science evolves much too rapidly, at least in technological society.
LM: And it's not just small things, it's a major change in mindsets after Copernicus. And then Newton was another huge leap.
EA: Newton was a huge leap from prior science, and then a lot of stuff started appearing in the eighteenth century and went into the nineteenth century. You know, electricity, magnetism, heat. . . these are all things that Newton didn't cover. By the end of the nineteenth century you have a whole bunch of scientific information that can't be integrated into Newtonian physics, which leads to twentieth century physics.
So, what I was trying to do was write a story that was about alien science two hundred years from where were are now, assuming that the Hwarhath in the future are comparable to humans two hundred years in the future. So, in that period, I'm going to bet there are going to be major paradigm shifts. Well, there would have to be, since there is faster-than-light travel in my stories, which you can't have with contemporary physics.
I was trying to create a story that turned on theoretical physics two hundred years in the future. I asked Ellen Kuhfeld to vet the science, and Ellen's comment was that my physics was bullshit but most of science fiction is bullshit. However, mine wasn't irritating bullshit.
LM: That sounds like a compliment.
EA: I am in a really interesting crisis because the Hwarhath count in fives. It's really, really important to them that things come in fives. So I wanted to have a geometry that had five dimensions. Ellen and several other people I talked to about this just went nuts. I'm not talking about a multi-dimensional geometry, I'm talking about having five dimensions in the world we know. For us it's four dimensions, so I wanted a fifth dimension. All of the human scientists that I talked to were absolutely outraged by that you need only four dimensions to describe the world we know. A line is one dimension, a plane is two dimensions, a solid is three, a solid in time is four. So, I'm saying, "how do you really know that a point has no dimensions?" So, I was finally able to get from Ellen the possibility that I could use that starting point as one of the dimensions. I think it would actually would lead in some interesting directions in geometry, because that dimension for Hwarhath is location. Basically implicit in their geometry is the idea that everything is somewhere. I think that would lead to a different geometry than what we have. But everyone I talk to says I'm full of it.
The basic premise in that story is that a) aliens are not going to formulate science the same way we do, and b) in two hundred years we're going to have very different science. It's one of these things that drive me crazy about hard SF. These guys take great pride in the fact that their science is absolutely true right now even though their story is set five hundred or a thousand years in the future. I just don't buy it. They're wrong.
That was a very hard story to write. It was ultimately an interesting failure.
LM: I hope it will come out somewhere sometime.
EA: Well, it will. If nothing else, in the collection.
LM: It's interesting that you started this whole thing because of Jesse Helms. Doesn't it fascinate you that right now we're almost in the exact same place that we were, with the amendment to stop gay marriages? Doesn't it seem that the world swings one way and then back again?
EA: I think ultimately not. All of these political blogs that I've been reading say that Bush did not want to end up supporting this amendment. He has to do it because he's losing his connection to his base, which is the right-wing Christians. The people that I'm reading say that this topic is too divisive. It's not going to help him. Because while most people are not comfortable with the idea of gay marriage, they basically think it's something that should be left to the states apparently. And it's ugly. What he's doing is ugly.
LM: What would the Hwarhath think of it?
EA: They would think Bush was a tremendous, disgusting pervert.
Copyright © 2004 Lyda Morehouse
Lyda Morehouse writes about what gets people in trouble: religion and politics. Her first novel Archangel Protocol, a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective novel with a romantic twist, won the 2001 Shamus Award. Fallen Host made the preliminary Nebula ballot. Lyda lives in the Saint Paul area with her partner of nineteen years, son Mason, and four cats.
For more information about Eleanor Arnason, visit this fan site.