Monday, June 10, 2024

A Woman of the Iron People

is a novel by Eleanor Arnason, who's Guest of Honor at Mythcon this summer, so we chose it as our topic of discussion for the June meeting of the Khazad-dûm book discussion group. Some of us liked it, others said they were glad they'd read it but didn't plan ever on reading it again. I was sort of in between; I enjoyed the book; I'd enjoyed it when I read it on publication in 1991, but I hadn't read it again until now, but more because I didn't have to: it stuck with me.

Looking beforehand for material on the book, I came across Jo Walton's review from 2012. She seems extraordinarily exercised by the fact that it won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. It's not fantasy, it's science fiction, she says.

I find from the comments at the end that I'd responded to this at the time, but I'd like to do so more fully now. She's right that it is science fiction; specifically anthropological science fiction in the mode of The Left Hand of Darkness (another book I find it unnecessary to re-read). But she seems unnecessarily hung up on the definition of the term fantasy. First, defining fantasy and science fiction as mutually exclusive categories leads to all kinds of fruitless arguments over the borderline, over everything from Darkover and Pern on down. Second, before "fantasy" came to mean a publishing genre, which happened during the 1960s-70s, it was a more generic term for nonmimetic literature as a whole, including science fiction. As late as the 1930s, some science fiction fans even abjured the term "science fiction" as too newfangled. That's why, for example, when a group of science fiction fans founded their own APA in 1937, they called it the Fantasy Amateur Press Association.

Lastly and most importantly, though it is called a fantasy award, it is also said to be for mythopoeic fiction "in the spirit of the Inklings" and mythopoeic science fiction is certainly in the spirit of the author of Out of the Silent Planet. Mythopoeic science fiction is rather rarer than mythopoeic fantasy (in the narrower sense of fantasy) but it exists. Jo again is confused here; she thinks that the judges must have felt that the myths of the natives in the story are fantasy from the human viewpoint, so maybe that qualified it as fantasy? No, nothing so complicated. By creating these fictional myths, fantasy or not, Arnason is a mythmaker. Her work is mythopoeic. That qualifies it for the award.

And I should know: I was the administrator of the Mythopoeic Awards at the time, and neutral though I was as vote-counter, I thoroughly approved of this book's eligibility.


  1. I didn't read Walton's review until earlier this year, when I was preparing an "introduction" to Arnason's work for presentation at the MythSoc midwinter online conference, "Something Mighty Queer," this past spring. I drew upon some comments I'd written years earlier, perhaps for _Butterbur's Woodshed_, but I wrote this: Some people have questioned how this could be considered a "mythopoeic" story. I reread the book, watching for obvious mythopoeia. At first, I focused on 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. It’s worth noting that the stories of Voice of the Waterfall are no less effective in explaining the course of story and events than the scientific explanations of the spacefarers from Earth. 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. Likewise, they might be rejoinders—unnoticed—to the many readers, reviewers and commentators who’ve objected to Arnason’s “failure” to notice or anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union, and presumably its Marxist/communist philosophy. But such reactions are not based in careful reading of _A Woman of the Iron People_, to say nothing of the limits of the objectors’ understanding of Marxism or the so-called communism of the Soviet Union.

  2. Oops, I failed to indicate that I am David Lenander