Among the authors whose names come up when the subgenre of anthropological SF is discussed—a group headlined by Ursula K. Le Guin, but which also includes Maureen McHugh, Mary Gentle, and Molly Gloss—Eleanor Arnason stands out for her focus on the role of fiction and art in shaping an alien culture, and the ways in which they are shaped by it. Her 2002 story "Knapsack Poems," which was nominated for a Nebula award, tells the story of the emergence of a new form of poetry among the aliens it describes. In a recent story, "Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery" (Eclipse Online, November 2012), an alien race who are at war with humanity try to understand their enemies by studying our literature, and become particularly enchanted with the Great Detective, reinterpreting him according to their customs and mores. In her new collection, Big Mama Stories, Arnason turns that eye back on humanity and tries to create a new folk figure for the technological (and, eventually, spacefaring) age.
Arnason invents a cosmology in which humanity is overseen by immortal, all-powerful beings called Big Mamas and Poppas (though, as the collection's title suggests, the latter are not the focus of Arnason's stories). In the five stories collected here (three previously published, two original) it is eventually revealed that all species, even non-intelligent ones like viruses and bacteria, have their own Big Parents, and the stories revolve around the Big Mamas traipsing through time and space, observing, and sometimes causing, trouble for their own and other species, bumping up against other Big Parents, and then trying to unravel the whole mess. The result feels like a cross between the Brer Rabbit stories and Doctor Who.
The first, and shortest, story, "Big Black Mama and the Tentacle Man" (Tales of the Unanticipated #24, July 2003), introduces the concept of the Big Mamas and their semi-mythical nature in its opening sentences:
One day Big Black Mama was walking along, minding her own business, walking up and down over the rises and through the valleys that mass makes in space. . . . The galaxy was all around her like a great swirl of diamond dust; and at her ankles—zip! zip!—were the STL ships of people who didn't know about FTL. She watched carefully, stepping over or around the ships. Not a single one hit her in the ankle, which was a good thing, since they could deal a nasty shock, if they were going fast enough. Not to mention what her ankle would do to them. (p. 1)
The rest of the story plays out like a science fictional version of the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. When Big Black Mama encounters the Tentacle Man, who is "twice as tall as she was and ugly as oppression" (p. 1), she convinces him to hold off on eating her by telling him of the greater beauty of her sister, Big White Mama. Then Big White Mama convinces Tentacle Man to eat, instead, their sister Big Red Mama, and before long Tentacle Man is surrounded by a crowd of angry Big Mamas who do not appreciate a threat to eat their sisters.
The story also lays out the political undertone of Arnason's invented mythology, and though this can sometimes feel a little heavy-handed ("You must have noticed that all truly refined and civilized people, the ones with the very best taste, are pale," Big Black Mama tells the Tentacle Man when trying to convince him to eat Big White Mama instead of her [p. 3]), there are also opportunities for humor here (in her turn, Big White Mama convinces the Tentacle Man to wait for Big Red Mama because "Everyone says I'm pale, insipid, and over-civlized. I have no Soul. I have no fire and passion. The music I play is boring. I can hardly dance" [p. 5]). Even more importantly, Arnason uses the story to lay out a mission statement for her commingling of science fiction and mythology. "The universe is large, cold, dark, uncaring, and dangerous," is Tentacle Man's explanation for his choice to eat Big Black Mama. "There's no place in it for people who can't do the math and figure the odds" (p. 2). It's an echo of an attitude expressed in science fiction from "The Cold Equations" onwards, but in Big Mama Stories Arnason argues for a universe in which the more powerful force, for good and ill, isn't cold, uncaring physics but conscious intention.
the universe is large, dark, cold, uncaring, and dangerous; and our only hope and help is one another. If you don't recognize the bond that ties intelligent life together, and if you try to use the universe as an excuse for your antisocial behavior—well, you deserve what you get. (pp. 7-8)
The other stories in the collection tell more elaborate stories, but all are underpinned by the same prevailing attitude of benevolence, compassion, and good-humored common sense. In "Big Ugly Mama and the Zk" (Asimov's, September 2003), Big Ugly Mama inadvertently causes the heir to the Zk throne to revert to an earlier stage in his lifecycle, which makes him unfit for leadership. She naturally whisks him off to the Carboniferious era to grow up all over again, which gets her into trouble with the Zk Big Mama. In the original piece "Big Red Mama in Time and Morris, Minnesota," Big Red Mama is interrupted in her rambles in the Cretaceous (the Big Mamas seem fond of Earth's prehistory) by a time traveler from the twenty-first century, and though she assures us that his belief in a "Sound of Thunder"-like vulnerability of the timeline is inaccurate ("For the most part, time was self-healing. Trying to change it was like trying to kick a hole in a river. The hole closed; the river flowed on; and everything was the same downstream" [p. 79]) Big Red Mama nevertheless takes it upon herself to investigate this anomalous presence, and discovers a strange relationship between the obnoxious time traveler and his inventor brother.
In the most interesting and inventive story in the collection, "Big Green Mama Falls in Love" (Eidolon I, June 2006), Arnason spins a complicated, multifaceted story in which the Big Mamas and Poppas are less benevolent gods observing the silliness of humanity, and more reflections of that very silliness. When Big Green Mama falls in love with her own beauty while investigating an alien planet whose dominant intelligent species appears to have died off, she begins splitting herself repeatedly into smaller and smaller copies of herself (and, eventually, himself, as some of the copies remake themselves into Big Poppas). To discover the cause of their malady, the Big Green Mamas and Poppas must investigate the planet's history, and enlist the help of several other Big Parents.
The final and longest story in the collection brings the Big Mamas into contact with their obvious inspiration. "Big Brown Mama and Brer Rabbit" sees the titular Big Mama encountering the famous trickster figure, who has been transformed into a man, in present-day Detroit. As Brer Rabbit tells Big Brown Mama his story, he journeys through African-American history in the twentieth century, starting in the Depression-era South, journeying North to take part in the country's industrialization, participating in trade unions and the civil rights movement, and falling in love with jazz music. Brer Rabbit's ambivalence about his transformation into a human, which Big Brown Mama tries to help him with, reflects ideas discussed in Arnason's afterword about the role that folk figures like him, and the Big Mamas, play in helping people—particularly those who are often excluded from the "official" history—see themselves in their world, and discover new ways to navigate it. In the original folk tales that feature him, Brer Rabbit can be an amoral, troublesome figure, but he also represents the ability of the weak and disenfranchised to use their wits and cunning to outsmart those who hold all the cards in their society. At the end of "Big Brown Mama and Brer Rabbit" the trickster rabbit is released from his enforced humanity, but still vows to use his powers to help pull humanity forwards—the same role that, in her invented cosmology, Arnason intends for the Big Mamas.
Big Mama Stories is a charming, often quite funny collection, and if its zany treatment of time travel and physics can sometimes seem a little twee, and if its politics are a little on the preachy side, there is almost always enough verve and humor here to counteract these flaws. In her afterword Arnason makes a good case for the need for folk figures even in an age of science and technology, and her combination of old-fashioned trickster figures with time travel and alien races is enormously compelling. One can only hope that with Big Mama Stories, she hasn't reached the end of these large, sensible, yet adventurous women's tales.
Abigail Nussbaum (email@example.com) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.