Written for Butterbur's
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
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."
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