Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens by Eleanor Arnason. ★★★1/2
Hwarhath Stories is a truly unique collection.
The framing for this short story collection is that humans have made contact with only one other sentient species: the hwarhath. The hwarhath are an alien species with very strict views on gender and sexuality. Their society is divided between men and women, with women running the home and men sent off to war. In the days of space travel, this meant the vast majority of men being sent into space. Reproduction is only allowed when its a contract arranged between families, and it is only under these circumstances that sex between men and women is considered honorable. In hwarhath culture, heterosexuality is taboo. The only socially sanctioned romances are same-sex.
Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens purports to be a selection of stories translated and compiled for a human audience. These stories are not what the hwarhath consider valuable or literary but are rather closer to our own culture’s online fan fiction — works written anonymously and passed around in an underground manner. All of these stories also somehow challenge the hwarhath’s strict roles of gender and sexuality or present characters and scenarios the ordinary hwarhath would find shocking and disturbing.
Sometimes, this involves characters of different genders falling in love. Other times, it involves cross-dressing, or men or women who seek to challenge established gender roles. In one story, the protagonist is a young man who runs away when his family group (which can be thousands of people in hwarhath society) is conquered by another family group. His adult male relatives are killed, and the women and children are officially adopted into the other family. Years later, he faces a dilemma when he and a man from the conquering family fall in love. Either this man is his enemy or he is family. Either way, a relationship between them would be horrifically improper.
Three of the stories are linked together, featuring some of the same characters. The first, “The Actors,” is a crossdressing story. Ahl’s family arranges a breeding contract with another family, but with no intention to honor it. Instead, they decide to kill all the infants (a right the matriarchs hold) to avoid lasting connection to the other family. Ahl’s cousin flees with her infant Dapple to hide out in the swamps, and Ahl decides to go against family authority to help her. To escape, they disguise themselves as male actors.
“Dapple” is about Dapple as a young woman when she realizes she wants to be an actor. In hwarhath society at that time, acting was a strictly male profession, as it involved traveling away from home and was disreputable. Dapple follows in her mother’s footsteps by disguising herself as a man. Although she faces difficulties, such as being captured by bandits who want to use her for illicit breeding, she eventually becomes the first female actor and playwright, going on to establish the hwarhath’s first all female acting company. She’s a quasi-historical figure in hwarhath society.
The third connected story, “The Potter of Bones,” follows Tulwar Haik, a woman who becomes Dapple’s lover and travels with her. Tulwar Haik is a potter who finds odd skeletons in the cliffs by her home and incorporates their shapes into her pottery. She begins to develop the theory of evolution, but since she’s far from any scientific centers, her knowledge dies with her.
Most of the stories are historical in nature, reading more like fantasy than science fiction. Some involve religious or mythological concepts. For instance, “The Gauze Banner” follows a goddess who takes a male physical form and travels with soldiers. The story is significant in that it’s the only one in the collection that really blurs gender and sex binaries, as the goddess switches and combines the two effortlessly and implies that whole idea of binaries is rather silly. A translator note lets us know that this story comes from a religious subgroup who believes the main hwarhath deity is both male and female.
“The Garden” is one of the stories that takes place after hwarhath’s contact with humans, when the two species are at war. The protagonist is a man who loves gardening. He loves plants and nature, and he abhors the idea of going to space. Yet, that is the only acceptable pathway for a hwarhath man, and running away would make him a fugitive and bring shame on his family. It’s yet another story that challenges the hwarhath’s strict gender roles.
“Holmes Sherlock” is about a young woman who is assigned to translate human stories after peace is declared. Of course, the hwarhath find so many human stories incredibly concerning, given how they tend to involve heterosexuality! But this woman becomes obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, even making herself a hat and pipe. When a woman in her town disappears, the matriarchs ask her to investigate. The translator’s note tells us that this story is one of the first hwarhath mysteries, a genre new to their culture that come about through contact with humans.
A lot of the content in this collection is disturbing, but I think that’s the intention. In hwarhath culture, individuals are not given a choice in whether or not they reproduce. It is decided by the matriarchs of their family. In some of the stories following the male military, superiors order their subordinates to have sex with them. Nothing is ever explicit, but it’s difficult to read even so.
The most disturbing story in the collection (and I am 100% sure this one was supposed to be disturbing) was “The Semen Thief.” A woman is the last of her family, and her dead brothers urge her to keep her family line going. Since she cannot get reputable breeding contracts, she disguises herself as a man, opens an inn in an isolated area, and begins preying on male travelers, raping and murdering them. The heroine of the story is a plucky young woman from a family that gets wind of the murders and decides to send her to investigate.
I have to admit to something: I didn’t take good notes before I gave away my copy of the book to a friend! I don’t have a complete list of all the stories in this collection, so I’m not going to go through any more individual stories. However, I do know that some others include “The Hounds of Merlin,” “The Lovers,” “The Small Black Box of Morality,” and “The Unraveling.”
I loved how this collection was framed as a translation, complete with explanations and footnotes. It was so delightful! I also came out the end of this book really wanting to know more about the conflict between the hwarhath and the humans and how it was resolved. Luckily, it appears Arnason has also written that book: Ring of Swords. I need to read it right away!
All in all, Hwarhath Stories is an entirely unique collection but well worth reading. It may appeal to fans of Ursula Le Guin.