Ordinary People by Eleanor Arnason

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"The Grammarian’s Five Daughters"
"Ceremony of Discontent"
"The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons"
"The Lovers"
"Origin Story"
"The Small Black Box of Morality"

ImageThis short volume is the sixth in the "Conversation Pieces" series of chapbooks from Aqueduct Press, which engages noted feminist authors of SF in a "grand conversation" with the genre’s past. This collection from Eleanor Arnason gives us eight pieces—six stories, a poem, and the text of a speech—in which the author seems to be engaged in conversation with her own past career in the genre. It is quite a retrospective collection, with stories going back to as early as 1974. The title is taken from the first piece reprinted, "The Land of Ordinary People." Arnason’s characters may have fur or green skin, but they are still the ordinary people, whose achievements are those of everyday life: potters, weavers, storytellers.

"The Grammarian’s Five Daughters" is an unusual sort of fable, though its structure will be familiar to the reader of fairy tales: each daughter takes her share of the mother’s heritage and goes off into the world to seek her fortune. One daughter receives a bag full of nouns, another of verbs, etc. All the daughters use their gifts well, but it should be no surprise to readers of Arnason that the strongest turn out to be the ones overlooked at first as "dull little words": the prepositions. Or that the nation founded upon the prepositions turns out to be the strongest of all, for its motto is: WITH. Characters in Arnason’s universes rarely exist in isolation; they are members of a culture, of a family, and this is true down to the rules of the language they use.

"A Ceremony of Discontent" is told in a particularly flat narrative voice that Arnason exploits to humorous effect, in case the reader should be tempted to take these things too seriously. Vusai is successful at her craft, but she has become discontented, without quite knowing why. She undergoes the ceremony of discontent, despite her doubts that this will really do her much good, and a dream appears to set her straight. She gets good advice, and it only costs her one pot and some dried fish.

"The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons" gives us a day in the life of a science fiction writer, ironically contrasting the writer’s quotidian existence with her heroine’s adventures on Titan, "deathraying down the warlord’s minions."

"The Lovers" occupies the center of this collection. This is one of the earlier tales of the Hwarhath, on which Arnason has been working for over the last decade, since they first appeared in her 1993 novel, Ring of Swords [Tor]. Written under the pretense of being a translation from the Hwarhath original, it takes an extra dimension of interest from the footnotes, which inform us, for example, that the original title of the story was "The Breeders," but it was changed to fit human sensibilities.

In Hwarhath society, men and women live apart and take lovers from their own sex, but biological necessity requires them to come together to breed. This, of course, is arranged by the old women in the family, and Eyes-of-crystal’s relatives want to breed her to the notable warrior, Eh Manhata. But Manhata is too busy in the war to be spared, so his family offers his brother, Eh Shawin, in his place. Shawin turns out to have a rather shameful secret; in Hwarhath terms, he is a pervert—he prefers to have sex with women. Since he is often asked to serve in his brother’s place as a breeder, he gets along fairly well in life, and he and Eyes-of-crystal become closer than Hwarhath society would deem proper; they become lovers, and she ends up breaking an important rule for his sake. Of course this can not go on forever. Eyes-of crystal becomes pregnant, Shawin must leave, and there is no reason for them to meet again. Yet their children turn out well, so it was widely considered a good breeding.

The next two pieces in the collection are both Hwarhath myths. The first, "Origin Story" is clearly derived from the Norse, with the first man and the first woman coming into existence from the primordial ice. They mated, and two children were born. The first was a daughter, who became the Goddess. The second was a monster, which immediately killed and devoured its parents. The myth then pauses to speculate that the monster was born because the first man and woman had acted out of lust, without the permission of their relatives. Typically Hwarhath!

"The Small Black Box of Morality" recalls the myths of both Adam and Eve and Pandora, but Arnason’s version has a lot more humor. The Goddess, having created the world, decides that it needs right and wrong, but none of her creatures is willing to accept the gift. Finally, she comes to the First Woman and the First Man. The First Woman agrees to give morality a try, for "As animals go, we aren’t much to speak of." She takes the first and largest bite, but then, having acquired judgement, realizes that the people have no future unless both sexes can tell right from wrong, so persuades the man to eat his piece, as well. "What happens after this ought to be interesting," says the Goddess.

Ordinary People as a collection does not contain all of Arnason’s best stories, and it may not be the best possible introduction to her work for readers unfamiliar with this author. Her fans may be disappointed that it contains no new, original work. What it does provide is a new look at the range of her fiction, and more good reason than ever to wish for more new stories from Eleanor Arnason.

Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Paperback Price: $9.00
ISBN: 0974655902