Review of A Woman of the Iron People

Written for Butterbur’s Woodshed
on this First Day of November, 1992.
From Underhill’s Corner, used by permission

Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People
By Edith Crowe

Fortunately, I read this not too long ago, so it’s reasonably fresh in my mind. I probably wouldn’t have voted for it if I’d been on the MFA fiction committee–not because it wasn’t an excellent book but because I might have had trouble seeing it as “in the spirit of the Inklings.”

Technically the book isn’t fantasy, although that wouldn’t bother the Bratman for a minute (he considers science fiction a subset of fantasy). My reluctance to view A Woman of the Iron People as fantasy made me think about my definitions a bit. When in non-MFA mode, the distinctions don’t bother me a bit. There are a lot of books which are technically science fiction but “feel” like fantasy–most of the Darkover books, for example. Sometimes, I’m sure, it’s a crass marketing ploy: they like spaceships, they like unicorns, they like swords, so throw ’em all in. Other times I think the authors like both and want to write science fiction but can’t bear to lose all that neat sword-and-sorcery paraphenalia.

Now, even if something isn’t fantasy, it can certainly be mythopoeic. Science fiction and fantasy share those two important and very basic characteristics–the urge to create a world, and the hunger for that sense of wonder, of the numinous.

A lot of science fiction is very good at the world-making part. Even though writers of fantasy are presumably less constrained in what they can create, not being bound by scientific principles and laws, it’s interesting how alike most fantasy worlds turn out to be. That’s what sells, of course; also, I think fantasy is less about world-making than it is about getting a message across using characters that have a strong whiff of Archetypes about them. You can’t make things too strange or original, perhaps, lest your basic message become too obscured.

I guess what most distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that sense of the numinous, that there is a deeper significance to things, people, and events that appears on the surface–that our actions matter; they may have consequences we don’t dream of, so we should never act lightly or carelessly.

Sometimes the sense of wonder that we often find in science fiction can approach that awareness of the numinous that comes from the best fantasy. But not all science fiction has it. Sometimes you read the latter for the sense of wonder, but sometimes you’re more interested in feeding the mind than the soul.

The appeal of some science fiction is the pleasure of watching essentially rational people use their intelligence to solve a problem. Let’s face it, that’s pretty rare anyplace else. Since it has been my experience that Mythopoeic Society types are for the most part intelligent people who are in the habit of applying that intelligence to life’s little vicissitudes, many find science fiction appealing for that reason. Sometimes one needs to be reassured that not everyone out there thinks with his/her fists or gonads, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

The use of teamwork to accomplish a goal or solve a problem is another satisfying characteristic that a lot of fantasy and science fiction possess. One of the reasons I like Star Trek: the Next Generation as much as I do, for example, is the recurrent theme of intelligent and reasonable people working as a team. In fantasy, the lone sorcerer or warrior seems to be a rare phenomenon. Maybe it’s the pervasive influence of Tolkien and his Fellowhip; no doubt it also owes a lot to the author’s desire to give his readers a variety of characters with whom to identify.

So what has all this to do with A Woman of the Iron People? First, thinking about how I would have voted for the MFA and why, particularly in relation to Arnason, got me thinking about these issues. Second, I did like the book very much but not for the same reasons I like good fantasy. (Why I like bad fantasy is another topic altogether.)

One of my unlived lives is anthropologist. I was an anthropology minor in college and have always had an interest in and fascination for that subject. So naturally I lap up anthropological science fiction. The creation of a new intelligent species from the ground up, giving it a fully-fleshed and internally consistent culture, is world-making of the highest order–and a lot more challenging than just inventing planets.

I think Arnason did a great job on that. It’s particularly difficult to get the reader involved and sympathetic to your creation when your species isn’t terribly humanoid, but she pulled it off, at least for me.

Of course, one of the best reasons for writing science fiction or fantasy, and one of their most important functions, is the ability to look at one’s own world and culture from the outside. That’s a perspective no other kind of fiction really affords. I confess there have been times I thought that kicking all the males out of the encampment at puberty was not a bad idea. Quite a few of them seem to be too dangerous to others to keep them around. If it weren’t for the fact that I personally know a number of them who are skilled at proper testosterone management (and whose company I value) I might be persuaded to make a blanket judgement.

A Woman of the Iron People has something good novels of any genre should have: well-delineated characters that you come to care about. It also has something which a good science fiction novel should have: ideas that engage your mind and cause you to think about larger issues that apply to your own life and culture. How do different people get along with each other while maintaining an appropriate level of individual freedom? What is the appropriate level of individual freedom versus group needs? What are the ethics of one culture encountering another for the first time–is it the Prime Directive or The One With the Biggest Technology Wins?

So, in summary, I got a lot of intellectual pleasure from this book, which is what I expect from good science fiction. I got the ability to look at my own world in a different way and question my assumptions. What I didn’t get was that sense of the numinous. Maybe that’s the real dividing line for me. Much as I enjoy a book in other ways, without that sense of the numinous it’s not “in the spirit of the Inklings.”