“A Woman of the Iron People” by Eleanor Arnason
review ©️ 1993 by P. Douglas Reeder
review free for non-commercial purposes
"A Woman of the Iron People" has almost no plot. There is a conflict, but it does not develop; it is inherent in the situation at the beginning, though the reader (and characters!) are gradually brought to realize its importance. The characters do not develop or change over the course of the novel. What, then is its interest? It shows (shows, not tells!) the reader an alien race which is human enough to identify with, but not just humans in furry suits. And it does so with a very natural storyline that is much closer to the unpatterned sequence of events of real life (as opposed to the artistic patterning of most plots). I enjoyed it very much.
The story takes place on an Earthlike planet of the star Sigma Draconis, 18.2 light years from Earth. It is inhabited by iron-age humanoids, the women of whom live in villages and the men of whom dwell alone. A 21st or 22nd century exploration ship from Earth has arrived after a 122-year journey. The ship technology is explained in an appendix, and the rest of the explorers' technology appears to be straightforward extensions of present technology. Western nations had collapsed and their inhabitants reverted to primitivism most of a century before the explorers left, but the Second and Third Worlds had progressed to form a peaceful world civilization.
The main characters are two human anthropologists, Lixia (pronounced Lee-sha) and Derek, and two natives, Nia (Nee-ah) and Voice of the Waterfall, an oracle. The text brings the characters alive, but their motivations remain opaque, as real people so often do. Most of the story is narrated by Lixia, and one gets little bits of her personality, but she is not an initiator of things and comes across as a non-memorable person.
The natural storyline is pleasantly non-predictable and almost entirely free of the trite progressions one is used to. At times this can get somewhat boring, since the "action" does not advance. I usually like a strong (but not stereotyped) plot, but I enjoyed this greatly, which is a tribute to Arnason's skill. The majority of the narrative is devoted to showing the character and attitudes of the aliens and Derek. The aliens' psychological makeup differs from humans in several important ways, but Arnason makes it interesting and easy to comprehend. Each of the four has a different attitude toward life. For much of the novel they are all in the same situation as each other; it is fascinating to watch them react differently and perceive events and people differently.
More troubling is the lecturing on the evils of capitalism and how it was responsible for all the ecological troubles of the world. The lecturing is reasonable for the characters and their background, and makes sense given the characters' situation. The problem is that there is no character to defend 20th century Western society, which I feel has many positive elements that the characters do not mention. It should be noted that Arnason is not ramming the Daoism, Buddhism, and Marxism down the reader's throat; the main characters express their reservations. I just kept wanting to reply to the charges made by other characters. Furthermore, at the end there is an interesting development which softens the impact of the lecturing.
I applaud Arnason for using a technological background that violates no laws of nature. Too many authors postulate an FTL drive or whatever else they need for convenience. Too much science fiction is unimaginative, postulating that travel around the galaxy will be about the same as travel around twentieth-century Earth.
I recommend reading this novel, particularly if you are tired of stale plots and arbitrary technology. It is very refreshing.
It has been published in hardback and as two paperbacks: "A Woman of the Iron People, part 1: In the Light of Sigma Draconis" and "A Woman of the Iron People, part 2: Changing Women".
%A Eleanor Arnason %T A Woman of the Iron People %I William Morrow & Co. %D copyright 1991 %K refreshing, aliens, relativistic space travel, Daoism, Marxism %O also pub. as 2 paperbacks: In the Light of Sigma Draconis & Changing Women
%A Eleanor Arnason %T A Woman of the Iron People, part 1: In the Light of Sigma Draconis %I Avon Books %C New York, NY %D copyright 1991 %K refreshing, aliens, relativistic space travel, Daoism, Marxism %O paperback
%A Eleanor Arnason %T A Woman of the Iron People, part 2: Changing Women %I Avon Books %C New York, NY %D copyright 1991 %G ISBN 0-380-75638-2 %P 263 pp %K refreshing, aliens, relativistic space travel, Daoism, Marxism %O paperback