Friday, December 28, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Eleanor Arnason

Today is Eleanor Arnason's birthday. Arnason is one of my very favorite SF writers, and to my mind a sadly under-appreciated writer. Which is not to say that she's ignored, but simply to say that she deserves far more attention, recognition, awards, and sales than what she has gotten!

For her birthday I've posted a selection of my Locus reviews of her short fiction. Some of her very best stories -- "Dapple", "The Actors", and "Stellar Harvest" in particular, all three of them from a single year, 1999, and all three among the very best SF of the 1990s -- appeared before my time at Locus, so I don't have close looks at them here, but they are magnificent indeed.

(One of her editors mentioned below, George Zebrowski, also has a birthday today!)

Locus, May 2002

The best of the other stories is Eleanor Arnason's "Knapsack Poems". The "goxhat" consist of several different units, all independently mobile and intelligent, but all part of the same "person. Ideally, a "goxhat" has units of all three sexes, male, female, and neuter. The narrator stumbles across a baby unit who is the only survivor of her litter, and against convention decides to raise it to adulthood. As the story continues, the narrator encounters examples of various malformed goxhats, all-female groups, all-male groups, etc., and we get a nice story intertwined with some nice commentary on this curious alien race and, of course, on gender roles.

Locus, October 2002

Gardner Dozois has long made publishing novellas a priority at Asimov's, and he has published some very fine ones this year. Both September novellas are outstanding. Eleanor Arnason contributes another Hwarhath tale, "The Potter of Bones", related to her excellent earlier stories "Dapple" and "The Actors". The story opens with a young Hwarhath girl, Tulwar Haik, growing up largely alone after a disaster wiped out much of her extended family, exploring the fossils in a nearby cliff. She grows up to be a somewhat eccentric potter, but retains her interest in fossils. We soon learn what's going on – this is one of those SF stories that recapitulate the life of a famous scientist in an alternate culture. In this case the scientist is Darwin. Arnason is careful to be true to her imagined culture, and Haik's life (even her version of the Voyage of the Beagle) is very much a Hwarhath life, and her discoveries are made within a Hwarhath cultural paradigm. It is as much a story about the Hwarhath as it is about evolution. It is quiet, gently humorous, moving, absorbing, thoughtful. Arnason is one of the best SF writers we have, and to my mind she is sadly underappreciated.

Locus, October 2004

George Zebrowski has revived his Synergy series of original anthologies with a fine new book called simply Synergy SF. Best here is Eleanor Arnason's "The Garden", which purports to be a translation of a piece of hwarhath science fiction. A young male, Akuin, is rather eccentrically an avid gardener. His compulsory military service in the war against hostile aliens (i.e. humans) is tending a space station's garden. The space station is for research: studying a very unusual wormhole-riddled stellar formation, as Akuin learns due to his affair with a leading physicist. Akuin, however, is not much interested in science, and eventually his love of gardens pushes him to violate hwarhath law. I found it an involving story on its own, with added interest in the way Arnason attempts to portray the thinking of a different race by the way they might write SF.

Review of Ordinary People, by Eleanor Arnason, from the August 2005 Locus

We are told that Ordinary People (Aqueduct Press) is Eleanor Arnason's first story collection – true enough, but almost astonishing. Arnason is for me one of the most important writers of short SF over the past decade plus. Her stories are intelligent, incisive, often very funny, science-fictionally intriguing, warm – and also just plain good reads. Her most obvious and recurring theme is gender roles, most often explored in her Hwarhath stories, set among an alien species for whom heterosexual relationships are abnormal. The Hwarhath society has been developed in numerous novelettes and novellas, as well as two novels, and it is more than just a simple case of exploring "what if homosexuality was the usual orientation", but rather a complexly realized culture, with many interesting aspects.

Ordinary People includes one long Hwarhath story as well as two briefer pieces that depict myths. The longer story is "The Lovers", about Eyes-of-crystal, a woman who is to be bred to an unusual though high-status male, the brother of a respected warrior. This story is perhaps most overtly among the Hwarhath pieces a simple inversion of expectations story, as Eyes-of-crystal and Eh Shawin, her breeding partner, fall in love against their society's mores. Is there any way for them to stay together?  But that's only one part of the story – we learn much more of Hwarhath culture and history. It's all quite levelly told, but very involving, very absorbing.  The two mythlike pieces, "Origin Story" and "The Small Black Box of Morality", are amusing enough though fairly slight.

The book also reprints "The Grammarian's Five Daughters", a popular and cleverly executed sort-of-fairy-tale. It's the story of a very poor Grammarian who has nothing to give her five daughters but various parts of speech.  The evocation of the usefulness of nouns, and verbs, and so on, is very nicely done, as each of the five daughters finds her own way to a successful future. I thought it perhaps a minor piece, at least in the context of my favorite Arnason stories, but a fine enjoyable story. "A Ceremony of Discontent" is a somewhat anthropologically inclined story, about a woman potter in a society where marriages are of three people: a man, a mother, and an independent woman. The heroine is an independent woman who finds herself discontented with her family or her life or something – the title ceremony is amusingly portrayed but the real meat is the offhand depiction of another family organization. The other story here is actually Arnason's second publication, something of a minor classic in the field: "The Warlord of Saturn's Moons", which first appeared in New Worlds back in 1974. It tells of a writer of rather goofy pulp SF and her struggles with her new story and with her real life in dreary Detroit. I liked it.

There is also a poem, "The Land of Ordinary People", and a very political piece, "Writing Science Fiction during the Third World War", her 2004 WisCon Guest of Honor speech (with some recent additions).

An Eleanor Arnason story collection is way overdue, and this is a very welcome book. I recommend it highly – and I look forward to more books from her, collecting marvelous stories such as "Dapple", "The Actors", "Stellar Harvest", "Knapsack Poems", etc.

Locus, August 2010

Aqueduct Press has issued a new chapbook from Eleanor Arnason, a Lydia Duluth short novel. Lydia Duluth is a favorite character of mine, and this is a fine story, if not quite as excellent as, say, “Stellar Harvest”. In Tomb of the Fathers, Lydia, her AI companion, and a mixed crew of humans and aliens, explore a fortuitously rediscovered home planet of another alien race. The story explores all too human conflicts among different races of the same alien species, along with some gender issues, and even some aspects of AI history. I found it interesting and quite fun.

Locus, December 2012

In November Eclipse features a very welcome Hwarhath story from Eleanor Arnason, “Holmes Sherlock”, about a Hwarhath woman named Amadi Kla, who is a translator of human stories, and who particularly loves the “stories about a human male named Holmes Sherlock”. This gives her a reputation as a potential detective, and so her family's matriarch asks her to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young woman of their lineage. What she finds is scandalous, in Hwarhath terms – which makes it interesting as a way of illuminating that society to us humans, and thus of course illuminating our society as well by contrast. And besides, as usual with Arnason, it's very dryly humorous.

Locus, July 2013

Eleanor Arnason's “Kormak the Lucky” is an outstanding novella about an Irishman taken into slavery by Norwegian raiders. He ends up in Iceland, eventually in the household of the “Marsh Men”, until the crazy grandfather of the family, scheming against his son, forces him to flee to an underground land of “light elves”. This doesn't save him from slavery, but eventually he agrees to help a beautiful elf-woman escape – first to the dark elves, then to the Irish fey. Arnason blends Scandinavian and Irish traditions with her own imagination – the technological nature of some of the elves is particularly well thought out. The elves are unsympathetically and realistically presented, and the people much the same. The telling is deadpan, with Arnason's wit simmering underneath. Just an absorbing and original story.

Locus, April 2016

My usual remit here is new stories, but I felt I should mention an upcoming collection from Aqueduct Press: Eleanor Arnason’s Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. This includes, as far as I know, all of her shorter work about the Hwarhath, organized into “Historical Romances” (long stories of the Hwarhath set prior to contact with humans), Fantastic and Religious Romances (mostly shortish pieces presented as Hwarhath fairy tales), Scientific Romances (Science Fiction written by the Hwarhath, set post-Contact), and even a delightful mystery story, “Holmes Sherlock”, about a Hwarhath woman who becomes intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes stories. These are magnificent stories, wise, witty, science-fictionally fascinating, moving – this may well end up being the story collection of the year.

Locus, May 2017

Add “Daisy”, by Eleanor Arnason (F&SF, March-April 2017), a similarly amusing if not quite serious short story, about a private eye hired to investigate the disappearance of the title character, who turns out to be a very intelligent octopus. In each of these stories we are in the hands of an experienced writer who simply knows how to tell a story.

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