I first encountered the hwarhath as the aliens at war with humanity in Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords (1993), a novel I highly recommend. That novel, like much of Arnason's work, is not the story of a single character, but one of how different cultures bump up against, disrupt, and enlighten one another.
In Ring of Swords, three main characters interact: Anna Perez, a scientist who studies alien lifeforms; Nicholas Sanders, who after being captured and tortured by the hwarhath, falls in love with a hwarhath soldier, Ettin Gwarha, and "changes sides" in the war; and Ettin Gwarha himself, the General who leads the hwarhath delegation, sent to negotiate with the humans, or at least sound them out, while the hwarhath decide whether or not to commit to full-scale war against humanity. Insofar as the novel has a plot, that's the plot—will humans and the hwarhath go to war, or will they find some alternative: find a way not to destroy one another?
The true main character in Ring of Swords, however, is the hwarhath culture. Arnason's type of science fiction has been called anthropological, and in a way this is accurate. Much of her fiction focuses on how child rearing is apportioned, how households are managed, how sexual desires are contained, on a culture's mythology, on the rules of warfare—all issues with which anthropology concerns itself. But this anthropological tactic is only in service to Arnason's true interest, which is the exploration of what people do when their culture, their ethos and moral compass, comes into conflict with their lived experience. In Ring of Swords, this happens to both the humans and the hwarhath. Each is meeting a culture that is entirely alien to their own worldview. Each (each culture, each character) has to decide how to react.
Humanity features in the collection Hwarhath Stories only as a minor player. Hwarhath culture is also the main character here. But Arnason's focus is the same: what do individuals do when their moral and cultural rules clash with the events of their lives, with their most central desires, with reality itself?
Hwarhath culture is deeply conservative—which is to say, it favors tradition and stability, and expects individuals to suit themselves to the culture and its customs (rules or laws) rather than expecting the culture to adapt to the needs of individuals.
It may be difficult for some readers to realize the conservative nature of this culture at first, given that the hwarhath culture is so different from most human cultures. In theory, the hwarhath have a gender binary that is much more strict than even that dreamed of by the most conservative segments of our society. Men and boys must live one way, and no one is permitted to depart from this way; women and girls must live another way and—again, in theory—no woman is permitted to live otherwise. (In theory: in fact, as we will see, things are sometimes otherwise.) But, and here is the rub, this gender binary is arranged much differently than in human society. Among the hwarhath, for instance, two separate but cooperative systems of government exist. One is run by the women, and rules over all matters concerning women. This includes those trades practiced by women, which include fishing, hunting, all sort of manufacturing, agriculture, education, science, and dozens of others. It also includes childbearing and child-rearing, and all matters pertaining to child-bearing and rearing, including which children get bred and born and to whom, and whether those children are raised.
The male government is in charge of things pertaining to men, which includes war, and the training and education of warriors—which is to say, the training and education of all men past the age of fifteen—as well as negotiation about war. Men also handle all the violence against other hwarhath men. They do the fighting and the killing, at least of other men. (Hwarhath men never kill or harm women or children. This is one of their major taboos. But in return women never fight or engage in violence or warfare.) Hwarhath men also have other occupations—trade, fishing, acting—but their main occupation, and their ideal occupation, is warfare.
Because of this—or perhaps it is the other way around—hwarhath men and women live entirely separate lives. Women live at home, with their mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, and raise the children together. Men live separately, off with other men, at war when there's a war, or off practicing other trades.
Another difference which may keep the quick or careless reader from noticing the conservative nature of hwarhath culture is that among the hwarhath not only does "marriage" not exist, as we think of the custom, but neither does heterosexual attraction, or love, or pair-bonding.
Or rather, I should add, heterosexual attraction and heterosexual pair-bonding exist, but only as an unspeakable perversion. Here is where we begin to notice the difference between theoretical gender binaries and gender as it is actually practiced. In more than one of Arnason's stories, such as "The Hound of Merin," we meet characters who do not fit into or follow the gender binary. The narrative voice of these stories makes it clear that these deviant characters and their cultures are strange and highly disapproved of in the hwarhath culture; but in at least one of the stories, "Holmes Sherlock," it is made clear that not every member of the hwarhath culture shares this disapproving point of view.
Still, the approved way of life for hwarhath is same-sex attraction. Men, living apart on their own as they do, in war camps, or on trading ships, or in acting companies, will form pair-bonds with other men. Women, in their multigenerational homes, or on their own ships, have their own romances, with other women. In the days before artificial insemination was possible, men and women had sex to produce children, in highly ritualized breeding contracts. Though these were not marriages, and lasted no longer than it took to produce a pregnancy, the children themselves produced a bond between the two extended families—a "weaving together," a sharing of interests reinforced by the genetic bonds. In modern times, children are also created through breeding contracts, and this same weaving together of families is created, but without any appalling m/f sexual contact, thank the Goddess.
That's the moral and ethical norm for hwarhath culture. But Arnason doesn't write about the culture in its normal period.
Well, what writer would, you ask? Where is the interest in exploring (and reinforcing) the cultural norms, especially for a science fiction writer? You'd be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't, if you've been reading science fiction lately. Though a certain segment of even the science fiction world has always argued for reinforcing, rather than challenging, our cultural norms, like all good art the best science fiction does what Arnason's stories in this collection do: it looks at what happens when cultural morality and individuals come into conflict, and wonders.
In Hwarhath Stories, Arnason writes about two specific periods in the culture of the hwarhath peoples. One is "The Unraveling," an era when a great general, Eh Manhata, was fighting in the north in an attempt to unite the country. He does not succeed—though his nephews do establish an alliance that eventually becomes the world government.
The other period Arnason writes about is the modern era (or, well, the future! But the modern from the perspective of the collection), after the hwarhath have encountered humanity.
Both of these events act to destabilize hwarhath culture. In these periods of destabilization, as in any destabilized culture, individual hwarhath face difficult choices. It is these choices, played out against the structure of a deeply conservative society, that fascinate Arnason, and that make this collection so interesting, and perhaps so especially relevant to those of us living here in our own destabilized science fictional world.
The interconnected trio of stories that illustrates this point most clearly are has as one of its characters the actor Dapple. The first, "The Actors," is about Dapple's birth, although Dapple the infant is more of a plot device than a character in this story. The second, "Dapple," is the only story of the three which is really about Dapple herself. The third story, "The Potter of Bones," is about Tulwar Haik, a potter who, like Mary Anning, works out the theory of evolution in part by collecting shells and fossils from cliffs along her seaside home—though unlike Anning, she finds these fossils at least in part while also digging clay and minerals for her pottery works. Like Darwin, Haik also uses information gained on a long sea voyage to aid her understanding of evolution—though, unlike Darwin, Haik is not on a scientific voyage, but traveling with her lover, Dapple, now the chief actor and playwright of her own acting company.
Arnason uses the trope of actors and acting in all of these stories (as she did in Ring of Swords). In the hwarhath culture, the play is one vehicle of serious literature, and thus a main vehicle by which most cultural ethos is transmitted. And among the hwarhath, two sorts of plays exist. One is the comedy, populated by a trickster figure known as the tli; the other is the tragedy, which is as ritualized as Japanese Noh—at the center, always a man, a warrior, faced with some impossible choice. "Some ethical problem that's hardly ever encountered in real life," as Cholkwa, the comic actor who appears in two of these three stories, puts it (p. 133).
In hwarhath tragedy, the characters act right. That is, they make the choice their culture says they should make, and because of this, they die, tragically. This is hwarhath serious literature, remember. This is the correct cultural ethos. But we are not reading hwarhath serious literature. We're reading not just hwarhath fiction, but subversive hwarhath fiction.
Here's where we get to the meta aspect of the collection. Arnason starts the collection with two separate introductions, neither by her. Both are by fictional human scholars, from future Earth. The first scholar provides in her introduction some background for the hwarhath culture and problems with translating the language; the second scholar explains the disreputable aspect, and the subversive nature, of these stories in hwarhath culture. Not all hwarhath fiction, this scholar cautions, is of this transgressive nature. Most is just seen as shady, and a waste of time. But these particular stories, in this collection?
These stories challenge hwarhath ideas of their own history. Who are they, really? Where do they come from? Are they as moral as they have always believed? (p. 8)
In the linked Dapple stories, one character after another watches a tragic play—the vehicle of hwarhath cultural ethos—and has a thought similar to the question which the child Dapple asks Cholkwa and Perig, the actors, and her fictive uncles: "Wasn't there any way out?"(p. 133).
Conservative culture, and most conservative fiction, tells us no, there is no way out. There is no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher famously said. Hamlet must die. Oedipus must be blinded. Cordelia must hang. This is how the world is, and this is how it must be. That worldview makes heroes, of a sort: tragic heroes. Some people like that sort of fiction. As Perig says, a little later in the scene following Dapple's question, "I'd rather be a hero in red and gold armor than a man in a tli costume" (p. 33).
This raises the question, then, of why the tli exists: of why trickster fiction, subversive fiction, exists, and needs to exist, in such a conservative culture. It is this question (among others, obviously) that Arnason's collection answers.
Many of Arnason's hwarhath stories, including these Dapple stories, are about characters faced with terrible choices. In "The Actors," a young woman, Ahl, must decide whether to obey the matriarchs in her family, including her mother (this obedience would be the correct action, according to hwarhath morality) or rescue her runaway cousin and a newborn infant, Dapple, whom the matriarchs had forbidden her to bear. In "Dapple," more than one dilemma is encountered. Dapple herself must decide whether to obey the matriarchs in her family and settle down to some respectable work—that is, work that is suited to a woman—or to do as she longs, and join an acting troupe (a forbidden career choice, for a woman).
Also in "Dapple," the matriarch of the Ettin lineage, Ettin Hattali, is faced with a terrible decision after Dapple is rescued from robbers. Ettin Hattali's dilemma: her son having rescued Dapple and killed the male robbers, as is proper, Hattali must either order her son to kill the women and children, who are clearly very bad genetic stock, or adopt those women and children into the line, as is usually done with conquered enemies. (Though these women and children are never bred.)
Killing the women and children of the robbers, who are evil indeed, is clearly the right act; but Ettin Hattali decides against it. Ettin Taiin, her son, is pleased. When his mother asks what he would have done if she had ordered him to kill the women and children, he says he would have obeyed—which is the correct decision, under hwarhath moral code—and adds, "If I had to do something so dishonorable, there would have been no alternative left except suicide" (p. 174).
Ettin Hattali says that's what she thought he would do, so she's glad she made the choice she did, even if it means living with so many troublesome women. She adds:
"I'm glad to know you're an honorable man, Taiin, though it means your old mother will suffer."
"Think of the pleasure you'll be able to take in my continued survival," [Ettin Taiin] said. "Not every mother of your age has a living son, especially one with my excellent moral qualities."
What a fine pair they were, thought Dapple. She could see them in a play: the fierce soldier and his indomitable parent, full of love and admiration for each other. In a hero play, of course, the captain would die and the matriarch mourn. (p. 175)
In "Potter of Bones," the last story of the three, Ettin Hattali and her soldier son also make an appearance. This story seems to lack the sharp moral dilemmas faced by characters in the others. Its characters mostly follow their society's rules, and have successful and—mostly—happy lives. But Tulwar Haik, our potter who maps out the theory of evolution, also, through a series of dream-time conversations with the Goddess, maps out the reason for existence of tricksters—for the tli—and for characters like Ettin Hattali, and Dapple, and Ahl. Tricksters exist for the same reason subversive fiction exists. Readers, and cultures, need to be told that yes, there is something else that can be done. Yes, there are alternatives. Yes, there are people who make different decisions, and tragedy need not follow.
I had read almost all of the stories in this collection before, but reading them together like this in one place makes their intertextuality—and the power of that intertextuality—clear in a way that reading them in disparate venues, often years apart, did not.
This is a powerhouse of a collection. It is not to be missed.
Kelly Jennings has published short fiction with Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction, as well as in the feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres Press.