I enjoyed reading Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People for its detailed building of a world with a complex society and multiple languages. We learn about this world mainly from the perspective of Nia, the woman of the Iron People in the title, and Lixia, a woman of Chinese heritage born in Hawaii. The story is set about 200 years in Earth's future, where problems of pollution and economic exploitation have mainly been solved, though Earth is certainly not a paradise. In addition, humans have colonized the Moon and Mars and perhaps some other places (the L-5 colonies). Lixia is part of an interstellar expedition to explore Sigma Draconis II, about 18 light years away, a trip that takes much longer in Earth years. (There's no "faster than light" [FTL] drive or wormhole or stargate to get them there faster.) After they reach SD II, Lixia and seven other humans land and begin to explore the earth-like planet. The rest of the crew remain on the starship.
Arnason's main focus is on social interactions, especially between genders, as well as the cultures that feed those interactions and that grow out of them. This is Arnason's great strength as a writer. The story opens with Nia, her life among the Iron People, and her expulsion from her own community. The main plot of the story then revolves around Lixia's meeting with Nia, their attempts to understand each other, and their journey (with a couple of others) across much of a mainly temperate continent. The story is very clearly written, even when later more humans who land on the planet start speaking about politics and economics (a fault perhaps as much of the author as the characters, but I'll get to that in a moment).
What would it really be like to communicate with an alien humanoid species? In the movies or on television, there's usually some nifty mechanical device or "implant" that translates what everyone is saying. Authors like Arnason show that it's not that easy. Real communication takes time, and there will be misunderstandings. Some of these misunderstandings can get you killed...or almost killed. Both Nia and Lixia together show that good will and an open mind can go a long way toward overcoming the most important misunderstandings; and for any misunderstanding that remains, sometimes it's best to sleep on it or to shelve it for later.
The other day, a friend complained to me that science fiction didn't have well rounded characters. For the most part, Arnason's characters are complex yet understandable. I particularly liked her depictions of Nia and the Voice of the Waterfall and a couple of the other people from the planet. Of the humans, the only one I really liked was Lixia, but mainly because she was the human protagonist and sympathetic to the people she met on the planet. Most of the other humans seemed to be stock figures, perhaps because they had to represent different "nations" on earth. The Russians and the Chinese struck me as caricatures, and the Native Americans, with whom I expected to have lots of empathy, also seemed drab to me. Having "native" names and saying they are part of this tribe or that is not the same as creating a believable Native American character.
Part of the problem is that many of the human characters are mouthpieces for political viewpoints. One of the viewpoints was that of the Soviet Union--which had collapsed by the time this novel was published. But the Soviet Union was in trouble already in the mid 1980s, with people in almost every one of its forcibly attached republics widely unhappy with the regime, as was well known. So the Armenian character Agopian comes off quite improbable to me. Since Arnason appears to have believed that the Soviet Union would survive another 200 years, it seems only fair to assume that she had some sympathy with its economics and politics, especially since the United States no longer exists in this novel. Apparently, only capitalists pollute; she must not have heard about Chernobyl. And the ecological disasters of Soviet Socialist pollution were only widely substantiated after the collapse of the Soviet Union; I guess Arnason didn't credit the reports from people who left the "workers' paradise." (At least one other reviewer makes a similar observation about Arnason's dependence on Soviet ideology.)
Next, there's the problem of the Chinese people on this expedition. All of the them strike me as caricatures, derived in part from the official "image" of the Chinese put out by the mainland regime and which Arnason apparently accepted without much question. Mr. Fang may be the worst. I'm sure there are people like him in China--there are over a billion people in China and many millions of Chinese living outside China--but the chances of such a long-winded buffoon getting on to a spaceship simply because he quotes old Chinese philosophers is silly. (He even gets some Chinese philosopher's names wrong. Yipes!)
Finally, the "pronunciation guide" at the end of the book mentions at the start the use of two Chinese systems of writing Chinese in English. This suggests to me that many of the pronunciations of even alien words should be similar to Chinese. But it's clear that Arnason doesn't speak Chinese or never consulted anyone who does or bothered to look in a standard dictionary. Anyone familiar with these two writing system knows that "ai" does not rhyme with the "ay" of day but rhymes almost exactly with "eye," not counting tones. Of course, if Arnason wants the "ai" in native names to sound like "ay", that's her call. It's just not Chinese. Speaking of which, "zi" in Chinese is never pronounced "zee." The "i" of "zi" sounds more like the "e" of "the", sort of an "uh" sound. Since "zi" is only used in reference to Chinese names in the novel, this mistake suggests inattention or indifference on the part of the author, as do Mr. Fang's mispronunciations of Chinese names, which I mentioned above.
It's a bit of a puzzle, then. Science fiction writers like Arnason devote considerable time and energy to creating wonderfully imagined alien worlds, but when it comes to things Chinese they have only the vaguest notions--and yet all they have to do is hop on a plane, fly to China, and spend some time doing what Lixia did: learning the language and the culture. China and the Chinese languages are as alien to us as another planet! (Arnason's novel is not the only instance of this vagueness about China in sf, but for limits of space I won't go into it further.)
Aside from these disappointments, I think it's a great novel. As I said at the outset, Nia and the Voice of the Waterfall are really well thought out. (I have purposely tried not to "spoil" the story by giving details.) With the exception of the parts of the last quarter of the novel dealing with the humans and their politics, this is a great read.