Eleanor Arnason Reviews

Mammoths of the Great Plains

By Greg L. Johnson

Sometimes good things come in smaller packages. Such is the case with the publication this summer, in two separate volumes, of stories by Eleanor Arnason. One is an old-fashioned science fiction adventure story, the other a thoroughly modern take on life in the near-future Midwest as seen through the lens of an alternate history. Both are the work of a writer who, over the years has explored issues of gender, politics, and social structure in novels like A Woman of the Iron People and Ring of Swords. In Tomb of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains, she does much the same, while also displaying a sly wit and a talent for creating likable characters who are, in their own way, quietly subversive.

In Tomb of the Fathers, that character is Lydia Duluth. Lydia is part of an archaeological expedition sent to investigate the lost homeworld of the Atch. What they discover are the remnants of a civilization and species in which human parental roles were reversed. An accident leaves Lydia and her companions, some alien, some artificial intelligences, stranded on the planet where they are forced to deal with the few surviving members of the Atch. The humor comes out of the observations of the characters and their personalities. from Lydia’s interactions with her own built-in AI to Karl Marx-quoting aliens. As adventure stories go, Tombs of the Fathers is a little heavy on exposition and a little light on action, but is nonetheless an enjoyable story which manages to make fun of social conventions while at the same time remaining true to the spirit of the classic planetary romances of the golden age of science fiction.

Mammoths of the Great Plains is a different kind of story. Set in that part of the northern Midwest where the forests give way to the plains, from Minneapolis to western South Dakota, Mammoths is told as a piece of family history, a story handed down from one generation to the next. It is the story of Rosa Red Mammoth, known as Rosa Stevens in the white man’s world, and her struggle to preserve the last of the great mammoth herds that roamed the plains before the coming of European culture.

This is alternate history on a personal level, much closer to the style of Howard Waldrop than to the flamboyant alternate histories of Harry Turtledove. Arnason mixes her narrative with bits of Lakota culture, and the history of those proud people from the time they first met Europeans until the late twenty-first century. In doing so, she manages to capture the spirit and temperament of these people, a combination of fatalism and a humorous outlook that has allowed them to hold on to their culture even while their lands and much of their heritage were taken away. There is also a real feel for the land, so much so that by the end of the story the reader can imagine can imagine him or her self standing on the edge of the high plains, watching the herds of bison and mammoths moving across the landscape, with the Missouri River winding its way through the background.

At a science fiction convention in St. Paul this summer, Eleanor Arnason spoke of how she now felt free to write whatever she pleased, and how that freedom was being channeled into a new found creativity. If Tombs of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains are any indication, that creativity is manifesting itself in stories that should capture the attention of readers familiar with her past work, and serve as a welcome introduction to readers who have not yet been introduced to a writer whose voice remains as sharp, observant, and individual as ever.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

While growing up, reviewer Greg L Johnson spent many days on the plains where the buffalo and mammoths once played. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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