Precious Metals: Eleanor Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People
Reviewed by John Garrison
29 March 2004
"Maybe I am a pervert." With these words, Nia, a major character in Eleanor Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People, considers that perhaps her relationship with a male of her species is intrinsically wrong. Nia's doubt is at the center of this exquisite novel that calls into question notions of sexual difference, monogamy, family, and other beliefs grounded in assumptions around gender.
This novel fits squarely within the writer-as-anthropologist school of science fiction which includes Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Arnason combines clear writing and an emphasis on dialogue to convey a strong sense of the inhabitants of the planet circling the star Sigma Draconis. For its thoughtful study of gender issues, A Woman of the Iron People won the 1991 James Tiptree, Jr. award for "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." Lixia, the narrator, is a member of a human team sent to study the humanoid inhabitants of an alien planet. This world is made up of various primitive tribes, each identified by their craft (e.g., the Iron People, Copper People, People of Tin and Fur) and each with varying mores around gender roles and sexual behavior. Most, like Nia's tribe, divide males and females into two separate communities that only intersect for the purpose of mating.
It is likely that the premise of the book -- a woman shunned for loving a man -- rang a more radical note in 1991, when it won the Tiptree award, than it does in 2004. Nonetheless, the novel's innovative storytelling and strong characterization yield a compelling narrative texture. For each main component of the story, there is often a subtler layer beneath it. For example, while the human visitors observe the behaviors of the planet's inhabitants, these aliens are, in turn, observing and commenting on oddities of human behavior. And in this layering process is woven the crux of the novel: that the concept of normal is based on one's perception and cultural context. Early on, the inhabitants rightly point out that the humans are desperately complicated. Under the influence of socialist theory, Lixia's crew makes decision by an arduous process, continually forming coalitions, assembling committees, and drafting manifestos. The inhabitants' observations lead the crew to question many of their assumptions, and they begin to adopt alien hand gestures as a more effective form of communication. As the two groups observe and critique each other, their ongoing interplay calls into question which race is truly more advanced.
In many ways, A Woman of the Iron People celebrates the return to aboriginal life. The narrator's exploration of the alien world and culture begin to feel like a "walkabout," where there is no real objective except learning about oneself, the surroundings, and the inter-relationship of the two. This physical and emotional journey begins as Lixia takes on Nia as both a traveling companion and guide to the land and its varied peoples. Along the way, their group grows, as humans and aliens alike take the time to relish in the experience: building fish traps and bows; learning fables; making love; and meeting other tribes in a safe, pastoral setting. For some readers, this depiction of a less technologically advanced society as consistently more gentle than a more advanced one may feel problematic. (In fact, the idea that primitive cultures are generally humane has recently been attacked by Michael Crichton in an address last year to the Commonwealth Club entitled "Distinguishing Reality from Fantasy, Truth from Propaganda.") Nonetheless, it works here and provides moments of telling naivete, such as a tribe shamaness being unable to grasp the concept that the humans could ever take the inhabitants' land away from them ("How can you steal land? It cannot be carried away in a saddlebag or even in a wagon."). Likewise, the shamaness is certain that the inhabitants would always have the right to ask humans to leave their world, just as anyone would when faced with an impolite houseguest.
Ultimately, this book is about people. And many readers may find it surprising to pick up a science fiction book and find it truly character-driven, rather than plot-driven (not to argue that a genre novel should be one or the other). Throughout the book, Arnason focuses on what Maurice Blanchot has called "what happens when nothing happens." Her characters do yoga, take breaks to void their bowels, sleep fitfully, complain about aches and pains. They take the time to sit around and discuss their feelings, their goals, their attitudes toward each other and themselves. The novel invites us into these conversations and thereby establishes a real intimacy with the characters. In turn, this intimacy renders the aliens immediately knowable and places potentially political issues in the realm of the personal.
This all brings us back to Nia's concern that she is a "pervert." As the story progresses, we learn that inhabitants use this term interchangeably to describe females who have sex with males outside the mating season, females who sleep with females, and those tribes that build their houses from wood. It is this presence of a multiplicity of meanings at the heart of A Woman of the Iron People that is truly liberating. Arnason depicts a portrait of an array of belief systems about such diverse issues as gender roles (among the planet's inhabitants, only males do embroidery) and monogamy (a human man sleeps with as many women as he likes, but foregoes commitment to avoid "betraying" his wife). These varied beliefs are continually made relevant by grounding them in their origins: both human and alien fables, history, emotions, and personal experiences.
Perhaps here we have found what is truly radical in the folds of Arnason's story. In the end, she has destabilized the universal notions of things many hold as steadfast, but at the same time made them more real by bringing them closer to the people for whom they are important.
And that, one can argue, is the starting point for any real social change.
Copyright © 2004 John Garrison
John Garrison works in Development and Public Relations for Strange Horizons, and also writes our Newsletter.