A Woman of the Iron People

by Eleanor Arnason

Cover image

Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1991
Printing: June/July 1992
ISBN: 0-380-75637-4
ISBN: 0-380-75638-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 493

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A Woman of the Iron People was published in two different formats: together as one book in most editions, and as a mass market duology with subtitles In the Light of Sigma Draconis and Changing Woman. The cover in the sidebar is for the former (the uglier cover of the two, and one that has no recognizable connection with the story); the other information is for both books combined. It's really a single novel, however, and I recommend reading it in that form. If you've happened across the mass market edition, plan on reading it back-to-back.

The co-winner of the first Tiptree award and also the (rather surprising) winner of a Mythopoeic award, A Woman of the Iron People is an anthropological first-contact novel. It's told primarily in the first person by the human researcher Lixia, who is one of eight specialists sent down onto an inhabited planet by a human exploration mission. The natives are humanoid but furred and are at (roughly) a bronze-age level of technology, divided into groups of villages that specialize in a particular technology. We meet a native named Nia, a blacksmith from the iron people, in the first chapter of the book, and Lixia then meets her in the second chapter and eventually forms a close friendship with her. She and Lixia are the focuses around which the story forms.

This is first contact as slow and deliberate anthropological exploration by humans who are deeply concerned about negatively influencing the native inhabitants. We slowly realize that the world from which Lixia comes is nearly as foreign to us as the world that she's exploring: there's been some type of ecological collapse and apparently a partial governmental collapse as well, capitalism is thoroughly discredited, and one of the factions on the ship seems to be partly Maoist (although a version of Maoism that leans towards the better characteristics of the philosophy). Lixia herself was apparently previously embedded in a group that sounds like back-to-nature primitives. And when we meet a second anthropologist, he's from a culture in California that appears to combine a close relationship with nature with some aspects of California surfer, hippie, and drug cultures. While the anthropologists are understanding the native culture, the reader is piecing together a picture of what happened to Earth.

The most likely comparison here is to Le Guin, and Arnason has a similar slow pace and detailed examination of local culture as The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness. Anthropology and careful observation is strongly foregrounded. Lixia collects stories, music, and cultural observations and is always happy for people to explain customs or tell mythical or legendary stories. Her gatherings of story are mostly presented in the book as she finds them, which leads to a slow pace, a lot of conversation, and quite a few mythological digressions. The mythology is somewhat interesting; the songs and poetry much less so, at least for me, and I found most of them painful.

The native species is somewhat human-like in its social structures, but with a radically different experience of gender and a considerably sharper sexual dimorphism than humans. When they go through puberty, living in the company of others becomes actively uncomfortable for nearly all males and they, with only a few exceptions, leave their home villages to find and then hold territory against other males, living alone. The civilization is therefore strongly female-centric, since only females and children live in the villages. Both males and females have small crafts, and there's an elaborate gift-giving culture, but larger industry is an exclusively female occupation due to male isolationism. Tied into and supporting that cultural organization is a defined yearly period of sexual heat, during which women from the village walk out into the wild lands claimed by men and mate with the first man they find, exchanging gifts and then returning after the week or two of sexual activity.

Most of this is laid out in the first chapter, told from Nia's perspective, but additional complexity and depth are added over the course of the book. Different native cultures handle the biological limitations differently and form different roles for men and women. And Nia herself makes an unusual break with tradition between the first chapter and the point at which Lixia first meets her. One of the slow progressions throughout the book is a possible weakening of the strict gender boundaries of Nia's people.

All this is occasionally interesting, but it does not constitute a plot, and for me that's the primary weakness of A Woman of the Iron People. There is an overarching problem (learning the natives and then deciding what sort of contact humans should have with them) that is slowly explored over the course of the book, and there are some intermediate goals to give the book structure, but it's mostly a meander across an alien civilization as seen through the eyes of an anthropologist. It usually lacks urgency or much momentum, and parts are filled with wilderness survival. (I once again find it remarkable how much of science fiction is filled with wilderness survival stories, often with quite primitive technology.) For a while, it looked like the tension would increase towards the conclusion, but despite some relatively dramatic events the book stubbornly maintained a leisurely and introspective pace. It's an interesting statement about both anthropology and about first-contact scenarios, and it feels realistic, but it doesn't make for compelling reading.

The grounding for the Tiptree award is obvious from the detailed examination of a culture and society with different sexual biology and drastically different resulting gender roles. And that examination is neither static nor concerned only with the typical case; Arnason populates her alien race with dissenters, outcasts, and people who flaunt social norms, and tests those norms in part by looking at their boundaries. Despite the fact that none of it is particularly exciting, it's a thoughtful and deep look at the way gender interacts with society and the consequences and impact of partial rejection of social rules.

The Mythopoeic award, given to the work most in the spirit of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and friends), is much less obvious and puzzled me a bit. I suspect the connection is to C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, particularly Out of the Silent Planet, which featured a similar human first-contact situation and exploration of an alien culture (although not by an anthropologist). There are some ways in which Arnason's culture is also innocent: large-scale warfare, for example, is unknown, due presumably to a combination of biology rejecting male raiding parties and a culture of small bands in a resource-rich environment. Arnason's concern with innocence is cultural rather than spiritual, but it's a significant theme in the book.

A Woman of the Iron People is not without merits, and I can see why it won the Tiptree. Parts of it I quite enjoyed; Nia and Lixia are both interesting, deep, and enjoyable characters, and I liked the radical changes in human culture that meant I had to figure out the humans at the same time as the aliens. But it's just too slow and too aimless for me to recommend as entertainment. Still, consider giving it a try if you want to see what a full anthropological treatment of first contact might look like.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-20

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21