A Woman of the Iron People

What happens when human beings venture light years into space to explore a planet inhabited by a technologically primitive race? Will they advance, retard, or preserve the indigenous cultures? Will their own habits and values be altered by their anthropological inquiries? These and similar questions are raised by Eleanor Arnason’s first effort in the field of science fiction, A WOMAN OF THE IRON PEOPLE.

Exiled by her people for violating the customary separation of men and women, Nia, the title character, is self-reliant, compassionate, and utterly believable. Most reader will be caught up in her story right from the outset.

Equally believable is the cultural continuity and variety of Nia’s people and the surrounding tribes. These “aliens” are radically different from us—for example, in their gender relationships and in the fact that they are fur-covered—yet also profoundly similar in their basic needs and passions. Arnason succeeds wonderfully in making Nia’s world come alive.

The book’s humans are also well characterized, particularly Lixia, an anthropologist who narrates the bulk of the story. Unfortunately, the social organization and history of these futuristic human beings remain sketchy and unconvincing.

The book has two other weaknesses. First, it concludes with so many loose ends that one can sniff a sequel just over the horizon. (Arnason’s earlier books were in the fantasy genre, where sequels are the rule.) In addition, the book’s dust jacket illustration is annoyingly “sexploitive” and completely unrelated to the novel.

The realism and richness of Nia and her world more than make up for these shortcomings. A WOMAN OF THE IRON PEOPLE is thoroughly entertaining and provocative.