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The First Tiptree Award Winner Review

A Woman of the Iron People

By Eleanor Arnason 

10 Aug, 2015

James Tiptree, Jr. Award


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Eleanor Arnason’s 1991 A Woman of the Iron People was one of the two winners of the very first James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It also won the inaugural Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and came in third in the 1992 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Even in the Before Times, when computers were coal-fired and USENET still ruled the interwebs, A Woman of the Iron People got very good word of mouth … so it has been a considerable source of irritation to me that despite decades of bookstore browsing, I had never seen a copy of the hardcover or the split paperback versions (of which more later).

Huzzah for Open Road Media, which offers a very affordably priced edition! Huzzah for my various electronic devices, which allow me to read said edition!

Despite some very impressive efforts, humanity has failed to transform Earth into an anoxic, lifeless desolation (which says a lot for Earth, given the rampant resource plunder and widespread pollution in the backstory). Moreover, a surprisingly sensible humanity has spent centuries trying to undo the damage it did in the 20th century. About a century before the book begins, humans even managed to build and then send a sub-light starship to Sigma Draconis. This sun-like star is not too far from good old Sol on a galactic scale; but it is unimaginably far on a human scale … which is why it took a starship travelling at a good fraction of the speed of light more than a century to reach its destination.

Like the sun, Sigma Draconis has an Earth-like companion world, and like Earth, that world has intelligent inhabitants. Humanity’s first interstellar voyage is also going to be its first contact with aliens.

Hawaiian-born Lixia is one of the field researchers landed on the surface of the world (robotic exploration was considered, but rejected as contrary to the spirit of the expedition). It doesn’t take her too long to make contact with one of the natives, Nia of the Iron People. While it will take a while for Lixia to understand enough about the aliens to understand that she has been lucky, she will eventually realize that she was fortunate to make contact with a female alien and not one of the males.

Nia and her people have mastered herding, metal working, and agriculture. Their technologies are fairly advanced compared to those known to the humans of the Paleolithic period (which lasted for 2.5 million years). However, to the human explorers, products of a very atypical period in human history, Nia’s people and their kinfolk appear backward. The explorers, having learned something about the alien life cycle, speculate that the backwardness is due to aspects of alien biology and that this is as far as the aliens can advance. 

Nia’s people are remarkably human appearing, given that their lineage and ours have absolutely no genetic connection and differ markedly at the biochemical level. Behaviorally, they’re more akin to elephants than they are to humans1. Males of reproductive age are argumentative and solitary in their habits. When they encounter other males, they fight over territory. They approach women only in the mating season. All of the arts requiring community, therefore, are the province of women, who live in tribes and villages. 

As Lixia discovers, this is only as accurate as any simplistic description of an entire species behavior, which is to say that there is tremendous regional variation and even within societies there are lots of exceptions. In the eyes of her colleagues up in orbit, where the low resolution model seems compelling, the aliens’ gender divide and life cycle mean that they can never advance past the point of villages and herds. A town can only become so large before the mating system becomes unworkable. 

Or perhaps the aliens could advance past that point with some sort of help from the visiting humans. Argument ensues: should the humans teach the aliens anything? Is that benevolence or foolish interference? If one were to teach, what to teach? The humans cannot reach consensus and the arguments cast a stark light on incipient divisions within the starship’s crew. 


You can really tell that this was written before the final absolute and irreversible triumph of capitalism over all competing ways of thought, blessed be the name of Adam Smith. The ship’s crew includes many flavours of Marxist, a lot more than one would expect in a book of more recent vintage. These days you might see the odd Trot lurking in the bushes (as those wily Trots are prone to do) … but more than likely, you would not.

You can also tell that the novel was written before we began discovering exoplanets in great numbers.

A word about covers: writers generally get no say about what cover gets stuck on their book. Presumably, assuming the art director isn’t just grabbing cover art out of a box at random, the art selected is art the director feels will enhance the odds that someone, somewhere, will purchase the book in question. I cannot believe that the art director at William Morrow (or the SFBC, who reused the art, or Avonova, who used the same art for the first paperback, A Woman of the Iron People: In the Light of Sigma Draconis) selected the best cover to hint at the novel’s anthropological allure.

The art for the second paperback, A Woman of the Iron People: Changing Women is a bit more effective at conveying the essence of the book. 

Still, the Italian edition reminds us that cover art can always be worse. Or, to quote Malvina Reynolds, there’s always a bottom below.”

I suspect that readers will find the parts about Nia’s people more interesting than the discussion by the humans how to deal with Nia’s people. I also suspect that the arguments re interference that assume no further contact is an option are pointless. There’s no realistic way that the humans can avoid continuing interaction with Nia’s people; even returning to Earth requires resources from Nia’s world. About the only way to avoid further contact (with all its consequences, good and bad) would be to fly the ship and its crew into the star. Nobody is proposing that.

The crew is tempted to assume that the alien culture is monolithic: there are no cultural or individual differences. That’s not true for humans (who are extremely culturally and individually various); as it turns out, it’s not true for Nia’s people either. In fact, Nia herself turns out to be something of an outlier. She is hardly the only one. The aliens are more capable of innovation and adaptation than the humans suspect. Not to mention the fact that there is archaeological evidence (ancient carvings) that the alien past was not as static as the humans assume2. There’s no reason to think that aliens will be less behaviorally complex than humans3. In this novel, they aren’t.

I waited a quarter of a century to read this book. Don’t repeat my mistake. Open Road Media’s edition is available here.

  1. I don’t know if Arnason actually had elephants in mind when she was dreaming up her alien world. Sfnal societies where the men live brutish lives in the wilderness while women live in cities aren’t all that uncommon.

  2. Although some sort of very long lasting cultural stasis might explain why the aliens are a only few millennia behind the humans in terms of technology. It’s not that we hit the same point at the same time, it’s that we finally caught up to them before passing them technologically.

    Although.… even if Nia’s people have been doing villages and herds for as long as we did fire, stones, and pointy sticks, that’s still only millions of years, a tiny, tiny fraction of the age of the universe. 

    It’s not a failure of the author’s imagination that while the technologies on the ship are more advanced than ours, the basic ideas behind them would be familiar to people from the industrialized nations of the 20 century. There may be a reason why​“technological stagnation” is on their minds. 

    Arnason has her characters note how odd it is that the planet features biota that is superficially similar to Terrestrial biota , but if there is an answer as to how that came about, the book ends before the humans find it.

  3. Lixia’s views about her fellow starfarers don’t seem quite as nuanced as the perspective she has on the aliens. In particular, the Chinese as she sees them seem to be surprisingly homogeneous, forming a bloc referred to as​“the Chinese.” It makes me wonder just how large the starship is; any less than a thousand people or so and she would of course know everyone on board — as individuals. I was also a little surprised that while American culture(s) appear to have changed greatly between the 20 century and the launch of the starship, the Chinese cultures seem … all too familiar.