Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason. ★★★1/2
Ring of Swords is a classic feminist science fiction novel from 1994. In terms of gender and sexuality, it shows its ages in ways you would expect, but it still holds up as an intriguing first contact novel.
Humanity has made contact with only one other sentient people, the Hwarhath, but they have been locked into war for fifty years. Now, the humans and Hwarhath are finally sitting down to negotiate a peace, but they know so little about each other.
Anna Perez is a biologist studying the native sea creatures of the planet where the humans and Hwarhath have decided to have their talks. She’s more interested in her work than the talks — she thinks that one of the species may be sentient, although none of her colleagues believe her. However, she is drawn into the process when she befriends a human who’s working for the Hwarhath. Nicholas Sanders was an intelligence operative captured by the Hwarhath during the war, and he has chosen to ally himself with them, largely because of his romantic relationship with a Hwarhath general. The human military regards him as a traitor to his species, and they want to use Anna to spy on him.
Before I delve into the plotting and characterization, I want to go ahead and talk about the way Ring of Swords deals with gender and sexuality. Part of the difficulty the humans and Hwarhath have understanding each other is that the Hwarhath have very rigid gender roles. It’s a matriarchal society where the women run the home, and the men are sent outside of it to become soldiers. Since the species unified under a single government, they as a society didn’t know what to do with their men when there wasn’t a war to fight. Thus, when humans were discovered, they were rejoiced as an enemy for the Hwarhath men to combat.
In Hwarhath society, men and women largely live separately and sexual acts or attraction between men and women is deeply taboo. Instead, same-sex relations are the norm. The find human society’s focus on heterosexuality deeply disturbing and many of the humans are likewise disturbed by the aliens’ homosexuality. This is one of the ways in which Ring of Swords shows its age. The attitudes around same-sex attraction have changed a lot since Arnason wrote the novel, and thus the attitudes presented by these futuristic humans seem outdated. I’m not saying that homophobia doesn’t exist anymore! But things have changed so much, so it doesn’t make sense that the human diplomatic core would act like homosexuality was that taboo.
Another issue with the treatment of gender and sexuality in Ring of Swords is that it’s incredibly binary. Everyone is either cis men or cis women, and there’s no recognition of non-binary or trans people. This is something I’ve encountered with a lot of older feminist sci-fi, so it wasn’t exactly surprising. The novel also deals with sexuality as almost a purely homo/hetero binary and contains no reference to the possibility of multiple gender attraction. There is one reference to Hwarhath who prefer not to have sex with either men or women, which could be taken to mean that asexuality is recognized among them (I took it to mean such, although I don’t know what Arnason’s intentions were exactly). It’s mentioned that this isn’t seen as an issue, although I still think it would suck to be an ace Hwarhath.
As I mentioned before, a lot of this is what I expect from 90’s feminism (although the potential inclusion of ace people was a surprise). I don’t expect a book written in the 90’s to have 2018 feminism, and I’m sure it was more revolutionary when it was published. Heck, it probably helped pave the way for the more inclusive feminist sci-fi we have now.
The only other cultural criticism I have of Ring of Swords is that it was very Western-centric in how it presented human norms. What it presented as normal for humans was actually normal for the West. I feel like it flattened a lot of the diversity present in family structure and gender roles throughout humanity. For instance, a noted difference between the Hwarhath and humans was that Hwarhath lived in large communities of extended families and that humans lived in nuclear families. And, uh, that’s presenting a brief slice of a small segment of the population as something universal? I’m a lot less willing to excuse this sort of Western-centric bias than I am the portrayal of gender and sexuality… although bisexual and trans people did have some recognition in the 90’s, so “a product of its time” doesn’t fully work in that regard either.
Although these elements don’t really hold up to a modern-day feminist scrutiny, I still enjoyed analyzing them. Also, I generally like books about aliens! Aliens are fun. And I do like first contact stories where two groups of people struggle to understand and communicate with each other, so in that way, Ring of Swords was right up my alley.
Ring of Swords is a slower paced story and not super actiony. It’s more thoughtful and character focused. Third person sections focusing on Anna make up the majority, although it also includes some first-person diary entries from Nicolas. I enjoyed Anna as a protagonist. Other reviewers have called her cold, and maybe she is on the surface. But underneath she’s full of a burning curiosity to understand the world around her and to reach out and make connections across species.
If you’re in want of an anthropological science fiction novel, you should give Ring of Swords a go.