A Woman of the Iron People discussion

From RUSTY THOUGHTS, by David Lenander, in Butterbur’s Woodshed.

Used by permission.

A Woman of the Iron People, by Eleanor Arnason.
Comprising the paperback volumes In the Light of Sigma Draconis and Changing Woman. But first fondly known to the Aardvarks, and forever afterwards as “The Furry People Story.”

This is terribly disorganized, I know. It’s really only notes towards a discussion, and I’m sorry it’s not better organized. But I’m out of time and space, so here goes.

I like this book better, having read it a second time. That’s generally been the case with Eleanor’s books, in my experience. And yet, I don’t like the parts I liked the best quite so well-I think because the element of surprise is lost. And they’re necessarily sketchy, so don’t provide the greater nourishment or texture that the other parts do in contemplative digestion.
The first thing I read by Eleanor A. was either her novel, The Sword Smith, or her short story “The House by the Sea.” I undertook reading her work because she had agreed to be a guest at a Rivendell discussion of her novel. The novel seemed to me to be a first novel, kind of an objectless quest, made up of episodic adventures that didn’t really go anywhere except for the hero’s search for self. I didn’t think too much more about it. The short story, on the other hand, was one of the funniest I’d ever read. I was practically rolling out of my seat on the bus ride home from the public library. I must have met Eleanor at a couple of the writers’ groups meetings which Ruth, Eleanor and Al Kuhfeld had started, but hadn’t connected her with the person that Ruth had suggested that we invite to the Rivendell meeting to talk about her new fantasy novel. Truthfully, I don’t remember her at all from the first meeting or two-perhaps she missed one or two? I remember her reading from the book which would become The Monster’s Daughter, as yet unfinished, and I remember Pat Wood from a meeting or two. But I had pretty much dropped out of the writers’ group after a few meetings, because I didn’t write enough to feel comfortable going, and I didn’t have a good way to get there in those days. People like Ruth and P.C. Hodgell, Mary Monica Pulver (Kuhfeld-I think she joined later, though), Mike Levy, Al Kuhlfeld, Cassandra O’Malley, Margaret Howes, later Deb Jones, and Eleanor kept going (other later folks included Joan Verba, Tess Kolney and Eric M. Heideman, as well as a couple whose names I’ve forgotten. Most of these folks, except for the Kuhfelds, were Rivendell attendees for at least a time, and most of them came to the writers’ group via Rivendell, I think).
Anyhow, when we had our Rivendell discussion with Eleanor, she said several things which I’ve always remembered. One was talking about the Icelandic sagas, and her readings of them, which she saw as underlying her novel. Suddenly the novel took a more distinct shape for me, and even though I hadn’t read the sagas, I suddenly understood The Sword Smith in a new way. It was not at all a random quest story, or at least no detail was any more random than it needed to be. The parts, which had seemed fine to me, suddenly knit in my understanding to something much more impressive, a whole that was about the post-war seventies in the U.S., as well as a fantasy story featuring a Procrustes-type host, an insufferable and doomed fair-haired hero type, and an unlikely protagonist, a lame smith who wants only to beat swords into plowshares, but is continually ordered to do the reverse. He’s accompanied by a weird alter-ego, saddle-bag-sized talking lizard, supposedly a dragon, who mostly only talks when they’re alone, and yet who cannot be wholly imaginary. After all they sojourn with the much larger adult-sized dragons, who are excellent plumbers, a bit later in the book, and Nargri does say other things occasionally, and bites one or two people. The other thing that Eleanor mentioned was that she was very serious about her fiction, but wanted to have serious fun and humor, and didn’t care much about a big audience. She aspired to an audience like Thomas Love Peacock’s, always a few devoted readers, or at least reliable readers, if never a large audience.
Let me go back to 1980, and quote from the discussion summary that I wrote up in Last Homely Hearth of our November, 1978 discussion.

Someone commented on style in The Sword Smith, nearly all of the sentences are simple (or compound) sentences, there are very few complex sentences. Yet the rhythm of the sentences keeps them from monotony. Eleanor explained that she had taken a course in medieval Icelandic-Arnason is Icelandic-and that her prose style was affected by reading the sagas. I thought this explained a lot about the strange mood of the story when someone commented on the sagas, saying that they are very grim accounts of blood feuds: so-and-so killed whatshisname, and whatshisname’s brother took revenge by killing so-and-so, whose sister’s son revenged him by killing whatshisname’s brother, etc. Eleanor went on to explain that she had been trying to write the story from Limper’s point of view without ever entering his thoughts. This is sometimes a difficult technique to manage. It reminded Tess of the film The Eyes of Laura Mars, which is filmed from Laura’s perspective. Limper’s story is like a dream, Eleanor was trying to rely on her subconscious for the development of the plot.

Eleanor is very serious about her writing, and in the he past dreamt of becoming a great writer. Her aspirations are completely separate from any hopes of making money from writing. However, as time goes by, her confidence in her writing ebbs: her current ambition is to be as important as Thomas Love Peacock, a footnote in literary history. For all the work that goes into writing, she can’t understand hacks. She told us that most of her favorite new writers are women, and very conscious of their womanhood in their writing. She listed Vonda McIntire, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joan Vinge, Marta Randall, James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon and Lisa Tuttle. Among male writers she likes John Varley and Michael Bishop, who is a “beautiful writer,” but to whose writing she cannot emotionally relate.

The Sword Smith was in many ways an unpleasant book to write, because the method she used to draw upon her subconscious and make it dreamlike was difficult and sometimes unpleasantly surprising (like pulling one’s own teeth?). In reaction to the laconic, withdrawn Smith, her second novel, The Hernshaw Inheritance [later published as To the Resurrection Station] was almost the opposite, and a lot of fun to write. She consciously tried to break the rules for writing novels, and to make it as absurd as possible. The book (as yet unpublished [in 1980]) starts out as a gothic on another world halfway through, it moves to Earth, “when the giant rats appear.” Her current novel is very boring to write, though people have assured her that it is not so to read. Its working title is either The Furry People Story or A Woman of the Iron People, and it sounds like a book that may be more likely to be appreciated by SF publishers, though Eleanor still doesn’t seem to care about being financially successful, or selling her stories. She grew up the daughter of an art historian, with the idea that great artists just aren’t financially successful-and that to be a really good artist almost precludes such success-money is negatively associated with great artists-though she didn’t go so far as to insist that the two never go together. In connection with her reference to Thomas Love Peacock, this may be illuminating. She thought of him because of his uniqueness-he was a somewhat quirky writer that did what he did well, no one else has imitated him, and he continues to appeal to a small, but enthusiastic group, who appreciate his work. Apparently, to Eleanor, that sort of success is more important than being able to live off of her writing. (For that matter, Peacock lived on his earnings as an official of the British East India Company, not on his writing).

Overall, I’m afraid this report fails to adequately portray the captivating person who writes such curious stories. If she sometimes is rather moralistic about her writing (and other peoples’ writing) this is a function of the deep commitment to-and concern about-what she obviously considers an art, not a craft, and certainly not a business or livelihood. In person, Eleanor Arnason is a perceptive, sensitive thinker, whose quick sense of humor never obscures how deeply she cares about the writing, SF/fantasy, feminism and other matters about which she has formed definite (though still adaptable) opinions.

My experience with having my perceptions of her first novel changing on learning about the roots in Icelandic saga is one of several similar experiences. I had a similar experience with To the Resurrection Station. I was disappointed in that book, mainly because I’d been expecting a book-length “House by the Sea,” that story that I so loved. The book is decidedly odd, and I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to hang together, or why conventions were consistently flouted in ways that were clear and yet inexplicable. Unlike the story, it’s not a comic novel that keeps one in constant giggles, it’s ironic, and peculiar. The gothic parody is only a part of what’s going on, and never really assumes humorous force, however much it really is almost classically comic in various respects. The situations are farcical, but it’s not played for laughs-kind of like Delaney’s thick-hewed barbarian Liberator, Gorgik, who is constantly talking about political theory and economics, while longing to sexually subjugate himself to a dirty, small, crippled (I don’t think “physically challenged” is the right term here) man while wearing a slave’s iron collar. That’s not exactly a humorous parody of Conan, parody, yes, but it’s aiming at something a long way from silliness.
Anyhow, I asked Eleanor A. about this book, and she told me that she had been trying to capture the ideational change that has to precede social change. And that the title of the book is a reference to the famous book, To the Finland Station, which is about how Lenin (or some famous Bolshevik) worked at bringing about the revolution, and finally realized that the moment was at hand when he got off the train in Helsinki, or whatever. As before, while not really knowing or understanding the socialist history behind this, I found that the book suddenly took on meaning for me. Meaning about social change, but set in a ’70s, American social context.
Eleanor’s books are about ideas, and I like that. But a lot of her characters are not very likable or forthcoming, and perhaps like Peacock’s characters, which are essentially abstracts, caricatures of various political or philosophical positions. Some of her characters are pretty terrible, take Lucia in “House by the Sea.” Again, lots of folks have misread this story. I think I related to it right. I loved it, not because I liked Lucia, but because it was so clever and sharply satirical and fun, and also contained real ideas and genuine pathos. Other readers have reacted differently: Ruth Berman realized that the story was supposed to be funny, but didn’t find it so until a later reading. Jo Ann was so taken with the darling little family retainer troglodytes that she missed that their devotion was misplaced in their mistress. Other readers have attempted to identify with Lucia, but that makes for an untenable reading, and they usually are totally puzzled by the story, and put off. It’s certainly not a funny story from the perspective of any of the characters, only from the reader’s vantage, where you can also appreciate the creation of the plants, the troglodytes, the brooch and house, while being horrified by the sensibilities of its inhabitants. Is the Addams Family funny to them?
So Eleanor comes to writing more fully developed characters and sustaining a narrative for long, boring pages of logically proceeding plot. I can imagine why she once described it as boring to write, compared with her previous work it is boring. And so is most other fiction. It may be more likeable, and it may not leave lots of pieces half-sketched, occupying only the space that they need to occupy in this narrative (as props on a stage may be made only of papier maché, painted only on the side facing the audience), but it’s comparatively dull. People don’t have to try so hard to “get it” with A Woman of the Iron People, is that good? Lots of people seem to think it’s pretty decent on its own terms, as well. Is it? I love anthropology and ethnography. I liked that aspect of this book. It was pleasant. It didn’t sweep me away. I think I liked some of LeGuin’s books better for that sort of liking. Maybe the Slonczewski book, too (or however that “Green Door to the Ocean” book was titled-however her name was spelled). But I think what I like best about this book is buried more deeply under all of this stuff, the ideas about politics and human social interactions.
Some people have questioned how this could be considered a “mythopoeic” story. On this rereading I was watching for obvious mythopoeia. The stuff I was watching for was primarily the native Draconan religious beliefs and stories, for after all, how could the beliefs of atheists carry the weight of myth? And besides, the presumption had to be that the easily discounted, ignorant native folk beliefs were being dismissed by the SF-technologically-biased readers. I knew that the other shoe drops in the last part of the book, but I hadn’t recalled it at the beginning. The native religious beliefs don’t really kick in until the entry of Voice of the Waterfall into the story, after about a hundred pages. But the very beginning of the story is the carefully laid-out myths about conserving human culture, protecting the less-advanced cultures from our own, dangerous post-industrial Earth culture. These are the myths, along with Marxism, and Daoism and others that the atheists from Earth live by. As with their “scientific” technology, when they predicted that the native organisms wouldn’t be able to survive in the visiting anthropologists, these myths and technologies are largely equal in terms of how well they function. Sometimes they’re right, in fact mostly they’re right, but never completely so. More than one explanation is required to explain the world. The book is full of arguments or ideas about the belief systems that we live by, and how these affect our behavior and even our perceptions. The stunning revelations in the latter parts of the book not only “save” the peculiar appearances of 21st or 22nd Century human culture, but they also turn back the arguments that seem to spring too easily to either Derek’s or Shipboard command’s spokespeople.