Ring of Swords: A Reappreciation
by Brian Attebery
Originally appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction
used here by permission
Some readers may not know that Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords is one of the best science fiction novels of the 1990’sor indeed, of any decade. The book appeared just over ten years ago, following the considerable success of Arnason’s Tiptree Award-winning novel A Woman of the Iron People. Ring of Swords was not the break-out sales success the publisher hoped for, and won no major awards (it was only 12th in the Locus magazine poll for 1993), but it continues to attract readers, is mentioned respectfully in critical sources, and is increasingly taught in college courses.
A decade after initial publication seems like a good time for a reassessment. How well has the book worn? What stands out now that the glow of novelty has subsided? What new connections does the story make with events and thinking in the 21st century? My own sense, on rereading the novel, is that it is a slightly different book than the one I first readand an even better one. Indeed, I would now say that is it a classicby which I mean not an unchanging monument but a text that responds in new and surprising ways to a shifting reality.
Most readers the first time out were struck primarily by Arnason’s bold experiment with gender. This aspect of the novel has been ably discussed by Joan Gordon, Wendy Pearson, and Veronica Hollinger. In Ring of Swords, humanity has come in contact with a race called the hwarhath. Among the hwarhath, the sexes are almost completely segregated. Women and men have their own separate occupations, living space, political structures, cultural institutions, and sexual arrangements. As the hwarhath developed space travel, the men moved out into the perimeter looking for new enemies, while the women and children stayed on the home world. As a result, the earth’s first impression is of a warlike race dominated by men. Only later do humans begin to discover other aspects of hwarhath culture, including the fact that female authority trumps male.
Though she draws on a number of earthly cultures in her invention of the hwarhath, from ancient Greek family life to Japanese noh theater, the society Arnason has created is convincingly alien. In the past decade, more glimpses of hwarhath life have appeared, including last year’s splendid story of art and evolution, “The Potter of Bones.” In these stories (which are seriously overdue for reprinting in a collection) we get an ever-deepening sense of the history, cultural differences, personalities, vicissitudes of love, and geography of the hwarhath home world. Even in their first appearance, however, Arnason’s aliens came across as a richly imagined, consistent, historically grounded race, one about which the author clearly knew more than she had occasion to tell. In this respect, Ring is in the best anthropological SF tradition of The Left Hand of Darkness or The Fifth Head of Cerberus.
But what about the storytelling? After we have added this bold thought-experiment to our way of thinking about gender, has the novel completed its task? Some SF books make a big splash and then disappear once we have absorbed their single message. Othersstories by Philip Dick and Cordwainer Smith, for instancedon’t make as much impression at first but continue to gain influence and reputation. I would place Ring of Swords in the latter category for two reasons. One is that it is a remarkably well crafted novel, one that demands and rewards re-reading. The other reason is that the images, events, and characters gain resonance over time, as the world supplies more ironies and dilemmas for the story to interact with.
As a way of tracing some of these resonances, I suggest three different readings of the book, each of which brings out slightly different kinds of excellence. I call these Jane Austen in Space, Slashing Heinlein, and The Scottish Novel.
Jane Austen in Space
As it begins, Ring of Swords looks like it’s going to be a piece of biological extrapolation. One of the lead characters, Anna Perez, is studying a possibly intelligent life form in the seas of an alien planet. We gain a strong sense of the landscape and ecology of an alien planet, and we get drawn into the question of whether the complex behavior of the organisms Anna calls pseudosiphonophores can be called true intelligence. Almost immediately, though, Anna is swept up into a story of intelligence-gathering and military skullduggery, and the book looks as if it’s going to turn into space opera. Neither of these emphases goes away entirely, but both are ultimately wound into the primary narrative line, which is a most improbable comedy of manners.
The importance of manners is signaled early on: first in the guise of diplomacy, as the humans and hwarhath negotiators haggle over such details as the proper height of furniture, and then as a whole series of blunders, misinterpretations, and painful explanations. The primary explainer is Nicholas Sanders, former captive of the hwarhath, now more or less absorbed into the male culture and serving as translator for their diplomats. Nick’s role as mediator causes him to be seen by the hwarhath as a security risk and by Earth’s military as a turncoat. His is a painful role that can be summed up in the Italian saying, traduttore, traditore: the translator is the traitor.
Hwarhath and human mores equally come under scrutiny. Nick explains to Anna such odd facts about the hwarhath as their lack of swearwords, their disapproval of public eating, their discomfort at being stared in the eye, and their constant awareness of lines of kinship. For their part, human peculiarities include keeping too many secrets, living in tiny isolated family groups, and promiscuously mixing the sexes. All of these differences are viewed by officials on both sides as potentially damning, so much so that the hwarhath are seriously considering genocide as a solution to cultural difference.
So where is the comedy? Everywhere. Every false assumption, every misunderstanding, is also a potential source of amusement. Nick, in his diary entries, sardonically dissects a number of gaffes, including his own. The unobtrusive narrator of Anna’s sections of the text refrains from making direct comments but lets juxtapositions flower into jokes. When Anna is first trying to figure out Nick’s role, for instance, she has a conversation with another scientist:
She didn’t share Katya’s passion for intrigue, which Katya said she got from studying plants. “They are wonderfully complex and devious, a constant inspiration to me. Those who cannot run must find more interesting ways to survive.”
All of which had nothing to do with the man who called himself Nicholas. (29)
No, of course not.
A comedy of manners must do more than set up ironies and clashing mores. Austen’s style of comedy calls for characters whose conversations demonstrate wit and perceptiveness while unwittingly revealing vulnerabilities and blind spots. Of Arnason’s characters, Nick is the wittiest and the most vulnerable. Many of the novel’s funniest lines fall flat when quoted: their humor is dependent on immediate context and on our knowledge of the character who speaks them. When, for instance, Nick shows Anna a hologram of the planet of the pseudosiphonophores, he asks, “What did you call it?”
“That sings.” (29)
And it is nearly impossible to explain why Nick’s line is so funny. It has to do with his aesthetic dandy-ism, with Anna’s single-minded pursuit of knowledge, with human bureaucracy, with the dangerous position both Anna and Nick are in, and with the growing rapport between them.
The most poignant pieces of dialogue are never spoken. They involve entries in Nick’s diary and annotationswhich Nick will probably never seeby Ettin Gwarha, the general who is Nick’s lover and protector. Talking about a hwarhath martial art, Nick writes, “I don’t like mirrors or moving slowly. But it’s a good discipline, and I guess I’m in favor of discipline.” Gwarha responds in a parenthetical note, “No. You endure it when you have to and avoid it when you can. You never take it in your arms” (255). We see here that Gwarha knows Nick better than Nick does, sees his flaws, loves him anyway, but fears that in taking Nick into his own arms he has offended the spirit of military discipline that is his other passion.
No two main characters sound alike in this novel. Even brief walk-ons have distinctive voices–especially the booming bass voices of the older hwarhath women we meet toward the end of the book. When Gwarha’s formidable aunts begin to speak their minds, we know that everything will come out right, because they have decided it should.
For, as in any comedy of manners, the right ending is a marriage. In this case, it is not a marriage between individuals but between alien species. The entire book is a courtship between proud hwarhath and prejudiced humans (or perhaps it is the other way around). The two races need each other as much as they misunderstand one another, and it requires all of Anna’s good sense and Nick’s sensibility to bring the courtship to a satisfactory close.
An entirely different level of comedy in Ring stems from its rewriting of a couple of classic SF scenarios. One of these is the first-contact/alien-war story. The first meeting of humans and aliens in the novel is a violent one. To earth people, the hwarhath are “the other, the unknowable, the people in ugly stubby faster-than-light vessels that came into our space and ran if our ships found them or fought and were destroyed” (23). Humans must figure out why this alien race is attacking so mercilessly: they must find a key to the alien psychology and a defense against a seemingly unstoppable attack. This is the set-up for any number of classic stories, of which the touchstone is Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
The second story trope is the kid-in-space story, in which a young man leaves home and gets himself swept up galactic intrigues. Along the way he finds a wise older man who serves as his mentor and an elite group of men in really cool uniforms. Ultimately he renounces family and even Mother Earth and transfers his loyalties to the space-going corps. This plot is a composite of several Heinlein titles, such as Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Space Cadet, and Between Planets. It is also the life history of Nicholas Sanders.
What Arnason does to these scenarios is to reproduce them lovingly, respectfully, and in such a way that they are turned on their heads. She slashes them. Slashers are fan writers who create stories of homosexual or other forbidden love between characters within established fictional universes. They pride themselves on drawing out implications that are already there: if the relationship between Captain Kirk and Science Officer Spock were not the emotional mainspring of the original Star Trek series, it would hardly be worthwhile or even possible to base sexual fantasies on it. The typical Heinlein story, which in many ways is the typical SF story of the 1940’s and 50’s, calls attention to its own inventiveness and tight plotting while drawing attention away from the emotional yearning that underlies the color and intrigue. Arnason’s novel reveals the lines of emotional force as a dusting of iron filings reveals the patterns of attraction around a magnet.
What does a Heinlein hero want? He wants to escape from one group and join anotherthat latter usually all male, often explicitly military. He wants to make his way into the innermost circles of this group, who comprise the secret leaders of society. He wants to gain an insider’s knowledge and the respect of the men who hold that knowledge. He wants to solve problems that conventional wisdom would say are insoluble. He wants Dad to accept him, and he wants to get away from Mom.
In Ring, Nick accomplishes all these goals by joining the hwarhath, the perfect Starship Troopers. They even dress the part. When Anna first sees the hwarhath delegates, she vaguely notices the uniforms they wear. She doesn’t pay close attention because these uniforms conform to human expectations of space-going soldiers. Only later do we find out that the uniforms are costumes. Nick explains,
“I told the general that the humans might find it hard to take people wearing shorts seriously. So we had the Art Corps design space cadet uniforms. Very nicely done, I thought. I especially liked the high shiny black boots, though I can’t imagine what they would be for. You don’t ride horses in a space station, and you don’t do a hell of a lot of hiking. The snakebite problem is minimal. Maybe you use them to kick subordinates, while uttering guttural curses in an alien tongue.” (139)
The boots, of course, signify an exaggerated, even fetishized maleness. Therefore, even though they are a fib, they also tell a truth about the hwarhath men, whose society is a straightforward extrapolation from various human images and institutions of masculinity. The parody is even closer to fact now than it was in 1993 (just imagine yourself a decade ago saying “Governor Schwarzenegger”). All Arnason has added to the mix is overt sexuality, and even that shows up in hypermasculine earthly cultureswhat is more macho than a leather bar?
Perhaps because she gives her masculine society a sexual outlet, it doesn’t have to resort to outright violence, at least internally. Hwarhath male history is plenty violent, but at the time the novel takes place, much of this violence is symbolic: channeled into martial arts or competition for status. One more way she revises Heinlein is to have her Starship Troopers end up not on the battlefield but at the negotiating table. In a review in Locus, Russell Letson describes Arnason’s version of the space-invader story as “chamber military sf, in which the action takes the form not of battles but of negotiations and conversations and arguments” (27). When Arnason slashes space opera, it comes out as chamber music of the liveliest sort.
Like a good Star Trek slasher, Arnason demonstrates affection not only for her variation on the model but for the tradition itself. Like Nick, we find these alien space cadets appealing. They may be overly fond of conflict, but theyespecially Ettin Gwarha–are honorable, generous, graceful, and capable of self-criticism. They are soldiers but they are also scientists. The hwarhath version of masculinity has room for generals and translators, technicians and artists (this last being something Heinlein and the SF tradition he represents too often leave out). What it lacks is any place for sexual deviancy. Amid the hwarhath, we see only one real outsider: Nick’s friend Eh Matsehar, who is a misfit not because he is a playwright but because he is a closeted heterosexual.
The Scottish Novel
Eh Matsehar, Mats for short, is engaged in adapting a human play for hwarhath tastes. This is not an easy task, considering the centrality of male-female interactions in Earth’s dramatic tradition. Eventually he settles on Macbeth, because, as Mats explains:
“The heterosexuality is irrelevant. The womanthat wonderful and horrible woman!can be turned into a mother or sister. Then the story is about ambition and violence, which are decent topics that will not disturb anyone in the audience.” (157)
Throughout the last third of the book, as tensions rise and the line between compromise and betrayal grows ever finer, Mats works on his play. As one might expect, parallels emerge between Shakespeare’s tragedy and the situation in the novel. Most obviously, Gwarha’s chief rival, Lugala Tsu, a thick-headed warrior with an ambitious mother, stands in for Macbeth. He threatens to push the negotiations toward disaster not only for Gwarha and Nick but for the worlds they represent. Less obvious is the match-up between Gwarha himself and the Thane of Glamis. Gwarha, like Macbeth, is a leader on the rise. He is advised by three distinctly witchy aunts. Honorable motives push him toward dishonorable acts, such as planting a listening device in Anna’s quarters. The further things go, the fewer options he has, and the more violent the remaining ones seem to be. And yet, as Mats says of Macbeth, “His courage is beyond question. He never gives up, even after he has reached the point of complete despair” (291).
Shakespearean tragedy appeals to the hwarhath because they already have a similar tradition (within the men’s culture) of “hero plays.” Nick describes them:
They are always about men who have to deal with a horrible ethical problem: a conflict between two kinds of honor, a conflict between two equal and opposing loyalties. . . . . Impossible choices, which have to be made in a little over an hour. And most of the time you die at the end, no matter what kind of choice you made. (64)
Yet there are other kinds of plays among the hwarhath, just as there are among humans. There are animal plays, performed in masks. The primary player in these is often a little scavenger called a tli, which “lives everywhere. It eats everything. There is no way to get rid of it. The People regard it with exasperation and respect” (275). The tli of animal plays is a mythic trickster. Nick compares it to Brer Rabbit, but Arnason also reminds us of another human equivalent when Anna distracts herself playing a computer game based on the Chinese character of Monkey. As she plays, Anna figures how to cheat the game: “The real Monkey cheated whenever possible. She figured she could do the same” (185).
But it is not Anna who is the chief trickster of the story. Nick has a bracelet, given him by Gwarha, with a jade carving in the shape of a tli. One of Gwarha’s rivals taunts Nick for being “The cheat, the animal who makes fools of the large and noble animals” (272). A trickster does not belong in a heroic story. How can we gasp and grieve at the fate of the noble hero when we glimpse over his shoulder a monkeyor Monkey–mimicking his moves for comic effect? How can we empathize with the hero who has no choices left, while Brer Rabbit demonstrates precisely how one gets out of an impossible situation? Tricksters don’t accept the rules that lock tragic heroes into their fates.
Nick figures out how to cheat fate. Gwarha is uneasy about the outcome: “I feel as if I’ve been tested like a hero in one of the old plays, and I failed. I could not let Nicky be destroyed” (325). But at the same time, he admires Nick’s unheroic courage: “He never gives up. When you think he is retreating, he is only moving to a new position to rest or to find a new way to resist or attack” (304). Exposure to Nick has ruined Gwarha as a tragic hero. Even when caught in a seemingly insoluble dilemma, he considers neither suicide nor explosive violence as ways out. He has become what the hwarhath call rahaka: the man who does not choose death over dishonor.
Ring of Swords shows how powerful genres can be. The scenarios we carry in our heads determine our behavior. Those who see themselves as heroes, whether tragic or triumphant, can justify any sort of behavior: lies, evasions, invasions, suspension of the rights of those they label enemies. Now, even more than in 1993, too many leaders around the world see themselves as heroes. We need more tricksters, translators, traitors like Nick to remind us how the hero’s story ends up and to show us unexpected ways out. At the end of the novel, Nick comments that a couple of dramatic deaths would look better in a play than the embarrassments and reconciliations that have actually come about:
“But I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to be in a tragedy. . . . Comedy is difficult, life is messy, and Gwarha and I are rahaka. So where does that leave us?”
“With a mess,” said Anna. “That may or may not be funny, and with a lot of secrets that may well bite us in the ass.” (363)
Anna is perfectly happy with the outcome. Neither hwarhath nor male, she has not bought into the tragic scenario. She is delighted with Mats’s interpretation of Macbeth: for all of the hero’s posturing, it is ultimately a play “about greed and bad manners” (333). But Macbeth’s tragic fall does have one happy outcome: it helps the hwarhath recognize that our peculiar race may indeed be intelligent beings and not merely clever imitators.
Macbeth, in Shakespeare’s rendition, is tripped up not only by ambition and greed, but by insecurity about his manhood. Lady Macbeth, who knows which buttons to push, tells her husband that “When you durst do it, then you were a man,” but whenever he shows any sign of doubt or compassion, he becomes something less (I, vii, 49). She herself wishes she might be unsexed, so “that no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between/ Th’effect and it” (I, v, 43-45) No wonder Macbeth tells her that she should “Bring forth men-children only;/ For thy undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males” (I, vii, 72-74).
Lady Macbeth can be read as Macbeth’s own internalized sense of gender: the inner voice that tells him if he wants to be a real man, he has to kill the king, buy a Humvee, smoke Marlboros, invade Iraq. In Macbeth, the expulsion of the feminine from court and from the psyches of both Thane and Lady leads to a distintegration and death. Once everything exhibiting non-masculine qualities, including Lady Macbeth, is banished or extinguished, there is nothing for Macbeth to do but kill or die.
Here is where a good trickster is needed. One of the qualities of a trickster is gender ambiguity: divine tricksters like Loki or Coyote not only change sex but even give birth. Tricksters bridge gaps, deny difference, and move freely through all conditions. And in doing so, they bring about change.
The implication at the end of Ring of Swords is that life will not be the same, among humans or among the hwarhath. After Nick’s intervention, the rigid separation that separates the male defenders from the female hearth will start to break down. The Lady Macbeth-like Lugala Minti and her son fail in their efforts to halt these changes. Gwarha and his aunts, who are more open to change, are able to negotiate a solution that leaves nobody dead, though it also leaves everyone at least a little uncomfortable. In a tragedy, nobody has to face consequences, especially embarrassing ones.
Ring of Swords is about genres as much as it is about genders: about science fiction as a metaphor for maturation, about tragedy as a scenario for defending one’s masculinity, about animal fables as vehicles for transforming society. Another way to put this is that it is a book about gender in much the same way Macbeth about gender. Both play and novel reflect upon, rather than merely reflecting, the sexual divisions that simultaneously enable and restrict action. The tricky author of Ring of Swords, like her trickster hero, shows how such fundamental categories can dissolve in the wink of an eye, leaving us free to reinvent ourselves and our stories.
Arnason, Eleanor. Ring of Swords. New York: Tor, 1993.
Gordon, Joan. “Incite/On-Site/Insight: Implications of the Other in Eleanor Arnason’s Science Fiction.” In Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 2000. 247-58.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Feminist Theory and Science Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 125-36.
Letson, Russell. “Reviews by Russell Letson.” Locus 392 (Sept. 1993): 27, 29, 71
Pearson, Wendy. “Science Fiction and Queer Theory.” In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 149-60.