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A Woman of the Iron People [Hardcover]

Eleanor Arnason
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

April 1991
Lixia and the members of her human crew are determined not to disturb the life on the planet circling the Star Sigma Draconis which they have begun exploring. But the factions on the mother ship hovering above the planet may create an unintended chaos for both the life on the planet and the humans exploring it. As the anger increases on the ship, the ground crew becomes more and more affected by the conflict and begins to rely on their instincts to keep the project moving forward. Unexpected danger plagues the mission as Lixia is determined to expand her knowledge.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

In this excellent, anthropologically oriented SF tale, Li Lixia is one of eight field anthropologists set down on Sigma Draconis II after the first starship from Earth detects pre-industrial intelligent life there. She experiences several of the cultures of the humanoid people of the planet as she travels with Nia, a female exile of the Iron People. Arnason ( Daughter of the Bear King ) introduces Nia and her way of life, then brings in Lixia and, gradually, includes others of the starship's exploratory team. While removed from the starship, the anthropologists remain in contact with it as they all struggle with the question of whether their active intervention will help or harm those whom they encounter. As in life, no clear answers are offered. With its strong prose, meticulously detailed cultures and commanding characterization, this is an intelligent, provocative book.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

YA-- Lixia, a human anthropologist on an alien planet, is forced to contemplate the contradictions of her species when her field work brings her in contact with an extraordinary person who happens not to be human. The experiences of Lixia, Nia, and those who travel with them are journeys in body and spirit across an unexplored terrain. Both the alienation and the affinity are emotions that YAs will immediately recognize. Strong characters, well-written dialogue, and a plot full of adventure make the philosophical theme accessible. This is not a novel for people who devour their science fiction like popcorn. The shifts in point of view and the relatively relaxed pace will discourage those who want simple entertainment. For readers willing to question themselves and to look at what makes them human, however, this book will be an exciting journey. --Cathy Chauvette, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent story telling June 2 2002
Format:Paperback
Eleanor Arnason is a gifted writer, of whom, I am sure we will
be hearing alot more from. The story is magical. The only
exception I have with the book, is the future written about
by Eleanor of earth. The book is copyrighted 1991 and the story is set at least two centuries in the future and the author
still depicts a historically viable soviet union and a marxist, Engelian
socialist future, which on the face of the story, is absurd.
Also why do they keep putting a picture of a woman holding a
skull of the cover of the hardback and paperback? What does this
have to do with the story?
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something to think about. Jan. 19 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The world-building in this book was superb. Set on the home planet of the only other sentient species ever found, the characters in this book are anthropologists who are trying to understand this new kind of intelligent life. In the process, they discover more about themselves than the objects of their studies. Listed as a Utopian novel in many reviews, it is not. However, it does include a distinct future Earth (in the human anthropologist's memories, actions, and attitudes) that could be described as a Utopia of sorts. This is a book for those of us who like to think, and it's one of the best books of this kind I have ever read. Do try it.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent story telling June 1 2002
By Thomas D. Gulch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Eleanor Arnason is a gifted writer, of whom, I am sure we will
be hearing alot more from. The story is magical. The only
exception I have with the book, is the future written about
by Eleanor of earth. The book is copyrighted 1991 and the story is set at least two centuries in the future and the author
still depicts a historically viable soviet union and a marxist, Engelian
socialist future, which on the face of the story, is absurd.
Also why do they keep putting a picture of a woman holding a
skull of the cover of the hardback and paperback? What does this
have to do with the story?
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Culture Treasure Trove May 3 2010
By Monty Vierra - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A+ : a wonderful anthropological first-contact novel. July 29 2001
By Peter D. Tillman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There's always some trepidation when one begins to re-read a fondly-remembered book. Will it hold up? Will it be as good as I remember? Happily, Ms. Arnason's wonderful prose soon caught me once again in her spell....

Lixia, the viewpoint character, is a Hawaiian anthropologist from an
Earth still recovering from the excesses of the 20th century. She's
nerving herself up to enter her first alien village at Sigma Draconis --
'There was no point in sneaking around. If they caught me spying, I'd be
in real trouble. The best thing was to walk right in.

The technique hadn't worked in New Jersey, of course. The people there
had tried to sacrifice me to their god, the Destroyer of Cities...'
Nia, a woman of the Iron People, is a smith and a pervert - she once loved
a man. Her neighbors drove her from their village in disgrace. Now
she has a smithy near a village of the Copper People -- the village Lixia had
come to study. Lixia's first contact doesn't go well -- she is driven out. Nia
takes her in, befriends her, and they become travel companions. The next
village they visit is kinder:
"This person without fur is amazing. She knows nothing about
anything. But she is willing to listen, and she doesn't interrupt."

Lixia and Nia are joined by Dexter Seawarrior, Ph.D., an Angeleno
aborigine. His people prize mellowness and truth; Dexter is devious
and ambitious. He left his tribe, went to school, and is now a tenured
professor at Berkeley....

The book is filled with complicated people, some of them human,muddling through life.
"When a shamaness of an alien village, having handled for the momentthe problem of an alien intruder, walks away complaining aloud, 'Why do these things always happen to me?' the reader knows she's in trustworthy hands. High marks." -- Suzy McKee Charnas
-- plus more nice cover blurbs from P. Sargent, Ch. Platt, MJ Engh, John
Sladek, Gw. Jones & UK Le Guin. They liked it, I liked it, and you will too.

Happy reading!
Pete Tillman
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the best tradition of first contact novels! May 9 2006
By Snowbrocade - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This stunning novel is in the best tradition of first contact novels. The main character, an anthropologist, somehow manages to keep herself alive among challenging circumstances, and finds the right informant to learn about a pre-industrial culture on a wildly beautiful and unspoiled planet.

Arnason's writing is genial and comforting. She has a knack for immediacy--it feels like the protagonist is a close friend imparting an adventure. Dialogue is snappy yet meticulous. The plot is strong and maintains stamina. This is sci-fi with its roots in an eco/feminist perspective similar to Le Guin or Tepper. All of the above and a page turner too!
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