Short Fiction Reviews: Eleanor Arnason’s “A Clear Day in the Motor City” (1973), “Ace 167” (1974), and “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” (1974)

In the past few months, I’ve put together an informal series on the first three published short fictions by female authors who are completely new to me or whose most famous SF novels fall mostly outside the post-WWII to mid-1980s focus of my reading adventures. So far I’ve featured Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), and Lee Killough (1942-). To be clear, I do not expect transformative or brilliant things from first stories. Rather, it’s a way to get a sense of subject matter and concerns that first motivated authors to put pen to paper.

Today I’ve selected an author I’ve never read–Eleanor Arnason (1942-). According to SF Encyclopedia, most of her best-known science fiction appeared from the mid-1980s onward with To the Resurrection Station (1986) (which I own), A Woman of the Iron People (1991), Changing Women (1992), and the Hwarhath sequence (1993-2012). Unfortunately, I did not encounter her work in my late teens and early 20s when I read science fiction more widely.

I’d rank Eleanor Arnason’s first three published short fictions as the most auspicious start of the those I’ve covered so far. Her stories–often self-consciously in dialogue with pulp worlds and plots–demonstrate a fascination with ritualized landscapes and behaviors and feature female narrators attempting to find their place in strange new worlds.

Let me know which Arnason fictions–perhaps from much later in her career–resonate with you.

3.5/5 (Good)

“A Clear Day in the Motor City” first appeared in New Worlds 6, ed. Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt (1973). This does not seem to be available online. If you find it, let me know.

Like a cryptic quilt, a strange ritualized landscape drapes across the polluted industrial expanse of Detroit and Windsor. On clear air holidays, when “the Seven Sisters” were visible from the roof of a nearby office building, CEOs adorn “wreaths of plastic oak leaves” and release pigeons to “whoever’s responsible for the weather, to bear our thanks to him, her, it or them” (187).

On one of these holidays, our narrator wanders the streets observing the rituals of the new age, the Age of Belief, the age of faith induced by psychopharmacological means. She observes the ritual processions of Christ-Adonis, “one of the middle eastern fertility gods,” and a saffron-robed Buddhist (188). She reminisces about her own childhood while watching children playing with plastic yellow stalks that foretell “only happy futures” (189). She giggles as a beginner golfer cannot keep his inflated plastic phallus, a contraption all golfers wear “to attract the favorable notice of the game’s patron gods,” tucked between his legs while he completed his shot (190). In her induced happiness, she barely notices the Doubters that lurk at the fringes. The day’s final ritual yields cracks in her mask of happiness and purpose.

In this new age, everyone can now play the role of haruspex because you cannot help but believe. Like a finger assessing the vitality of the land from the entrails of a sacrificial animal, these actions provide an answer that doesn’t lay blame at the feet of humankind. Fidazene provides the possibility of a path through the smog. Or, at least, the kindly eye of an entity that can peer through the nightmarish crush of humanmade catastrophe.

The Detroit of the early 70s was a city moving slowly towards urban decay. After the Twelfth Street riot in 1967–part of a larger protest movement against poverty, racism, and unemployment exacerbated by the departure of businesses from the city centers–more and more denizens of the affluent neighborhoods moved to the suburbs. Right after the story’s publication, the Supreme Court’s 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision, which ruled suburbs couldn’t be forced to aid with desegregating Detroit’s urban schools, caused further white exodus from the United States’ most segregated city.

Both “A Clear Day in the Motor City” (1973) and “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” (1974) (below) provide commentary on the city’s turbulent collapse. Arnason imagines Detroit’s position as an industrial capital continues. But beneath the surface a deeper horror operates–pollution and unrest. A terror that fidazene must keep at bay. A terror in which old gods in new skins must be resurrected to appease.

3/5 (Average)

“Ace 167” first appeared in Orbit 15, ed. Damon Knight (1974). You can read it online here.

A transient narrator attempting to find her place in the world, recounts her interactions with Ace 167, a genetically and surgically modified human designed to swim in the oceans of Venus. Fresh off a failed job managing a “troupe of precision unicyclists,” she meets Ace in a bar while slurping cheap Venusian wine (149). Created at great cost, the “Gillies” undergo specialized training to work dangerous underwater projects. Like the narrator, Ace wanders… he brushes off the visceral hatred the world throws at him and moves on to the next job. But he fears the dark Venusian seas and resists returning to the depths. Their fleeting interactions over the years causes both to reflect on the passing of youth and the need to connect to something.

Arnason’s Venus is deliberately anachronistic. By the 70s everyone knew there were no oceans on Venus and no way humans could survive in the ferocious elements. In “The Warlord of the Saturn’s Moons” (1974), Arnason explores the immense pull the science fictional pulp locale holds. It’s a place of escape. The problems are simple. The right is right and the wrong is so very wrong. At first glance this Venus looks like a pulp conception of the exotic planet. The city of Isis, replete with “as many canals as streets” and “water gardens” and towering “skyscrapers made of blue glass” (153), feels like something out of a Burroughs story. The Venusian natives paddle by in their canoes and perform their rituals with “god-symbols made of flowers tied together, their tiny cages with brightly colored insects inside of them” (153). But Isis is filled with segregated districts and aimless denizens like the narrator and Ace. And the tourists approach the natives and their displays and “moved in to buy” (153). This is a pulp Venus with an all too real underbelly of reality.

Our narrator, who grew up in Windsor across the ruins of Old Detroit, might have viewed Venus as place to escape. But all life’s problems and pitfalls found her anyway among the splendors of an exotic world.

4.75/5 (Very Good)

“The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” first appeared in New Worlds 7, ed. Hilary Bailey and Charles Platt (1974). You can read it online here. I read it in The New Women of Wonder, ed. Pamela Sargent (1978). Nominated for the 1976 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“Carry me back to Titan

That’s where I want to be.

I want to repose

On the methane snows

At the edge of a frozen sea” (83).

A 35-year-old writer of pulp science fiction, and a “feeder of stray cats” (78), spends her day making tea, smoking cigars, and imagining action-packed adventures on Titan. The real world, a Detroit of the near future, imposes itself on the radio and through her window. And so she returns to Titan with her “read-headed heroine deathraying down the warlord’s minions” so that her nights “aren’t troubled by dreams of murder” (79). But what shall she do with 409, her heroine’s love interest? An escapee of a prison asteroid with a face “burned [..] by years of strong radiation on Mars and in space” (81), 409 yields a strange stoic power. The writer feels drawn to her own character–“I could, of course, kill him off” (81) she muses. But there are more layers… her heroine manifests so many of the writer’s own childhood dreams. And the writer struggles to find her own partner. And back into the story she slips, writing challenge after challenge 409 and his read-headed love must overcome. And while she writes another body is dragged from the Detroit River (83).

The three stories also provide the outline of a future history of Detroit. In “The Warlords of Saturn’s Moons” it seems like a near-future manifestation of the city after the riots of the late 60s, urban decay, and growing white flight. The murder count skyrockets and the pollution grows unbearable. In “A Clear Day in the Motor City,” Arnason suggests drugs will be needed to keep people from seeing the true nature of the decay. And in “Ace 167” Detroit is but ruins…

“The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” is a powerful conjuration of the allure of writing and reading science fiction. Imaginary worlds where life can be simpler. Imaginary worlds to be destroyed and resurrected and destroyed and resurrected at will while the world writhes outside. This feels like a culmination of Arnason’s first two stories. All the rituals are here–the writer makes tea, smokes her cigar, turns on her radio, turns off her radio, makes tea, starts to write, makes tea. And the pulp adventure becomes a tapestry where every thread intersects with the writer’s being. Pulp as a manifestation of her desires, a manifestation of her agency in a world slipping from grasp.

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19 thoughts on “Short Fiction Reviews: Eleanor Arnason’s “A Clear Day in the Motor City” (1973), “Ace 167” (1974), and “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” (1974)

  1. Great. I’ve got both New Worlds 6 and 7, so I’ll dutifully go of and read ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’ and ‘A Clear Day in the Motor City’ (probably in that order). Looking forward to some sweet, sweet recursive, new wave-ish, urban decay SF…

    • I am sucker for ritual landscapes in fiction–from the bizarre (inflatable plastic phalluses in the first story) to the making of tea (and traversing the home, opening the cabinet, boiling the water).

      But yes, this was a worthwhile reading adventure! And I too am pulled in by urban decay, recursive SF, and well-told fiction. And I’ll remember two of these stories for a long while.

      Let me know what you think of them!

    • She has an interesting background and life.

      According to Wikipedia: “From 1949 to 1960, Arnason and her parents lived in Walker’s “Idea House #2″, a futuristic dwelling built next to the Walker Art Center. [1] Arnason has said that her experience growing up around avant-garde artists in a futurist house, in addition to the influence of her feminist, socialist mother contributed to her preoccupation with the future, and consequently science fiction.”

      She also attended the March on Washington in 1963 with her mother, participated in labor-related political activism while in New York, etc.

      • I’ve read ‘The Warlords of Saturn’s Moons’. There’s a lot going on in this story. At the very beginning, the author, ‘a silver haired maiden lady of thirty-five’ imagines herself at fifty, wondering whatever happened to her childhood ambitions. Indeed, these ambitions all seem to be attributes of the heroine of the SF tale within the tale. But really, perhaps it’s a tale within a tale within a tale. The “present” reality of the author, that continually intrudes and distracts her from writing ‘[a]nother escape!’ for the heroine and 409, is perhaps the imagined “reality” of her future 50-year-old self. The 35-year-old writing a story of the 50-year-old writing a story…

        There is something savagely melancholic about all these recursions, all failed attempts to escape both the present and any imagined presents that may come to pass. The very end of the story, with its image of hopeless addiction in the face of reality both imagined and imaginatively real, speaks to the futility of all such fictional escapes. The dreams of science fiction lie in ruin, as banal and as mundane as the polluted reality that has come to pass.

        I love the confusion in the conclusion. The heroine of the SF story within the story (within the story…) becomes confused with the author and 409. Convincing no one, especially herself, the author opines, ‘Where there’s life and hope and so forth, I tell myself.’ Is it 409 who reconciles himself to addiction and work, or the author, whose dependency upon the tropes and trials of writing SF is patent?

        • I was not entire sure what to make of the 50-year old in the future layer. And did not entirely know which version was writing what. I’ve always been a fan of this style of frame story (and attempted to write–unsuccessfully–my fair share of them in college). Who is writing what, who is imaging what, etc.

          You write:
          “The very end of the story, with its image of hopeless addiction in the face of reality both imagined and imaginatively real, speaks to the futility of all such fictional escapes. The dreams of science fiction lie in ruin, as banal and as mundane as the polluted reality that has come to pass.”

          Regardless of the ultimate emptiness of the SF visions, unlike Malzberg, I feel that Arnason’s visions are full of warmth. Yes, she might see them–in their final tally–as “banal and mundane” but it’s more with melancholy at the lost of a world with simpler answers than with destructive incision of SF as full-blown delusion.

          • I agree that Arnason displays none of the bitterness of Malzberg (or at least the bitter Malzberg voice–is there any other?!). And perhaps my comment betrays some of my own feelings more than hers. And yet I find the last few sentences of the story deeply pessimistic and depressing. The heroine/author “can’t stop weeping” as 409/the author assures them that everything is all right. After the preceding, no matter how loving the parody and “decadence” is at times (decadence here in the Russ/Malzberg sense of the term), this is a bleak end. Don’t get me wrong, I like the story a lot.

            Speaking of which, check out this scan I made of the illustration that accompanies the story in New Worlds 7 on page 94 (illustration by Pamela Zoline no less):

            • I love the Zoline illustration. It looks like she uses stamps, including a stamp of Thunderbird 1!

            • Tangent: I have a story for you about the future of science fiction. FINALLY science fiction of the future takes on DIFFERENT traits (sort of) in John Varley’s manic “The Funhouse Effect” (1976). The main character writes science fiction (which only has a small cult following — if that) about life on Earth. I won’t give more away. The story itself is like The Poseidon Adventure on a comet filled with the weird and bizarre and shades of Lewis Carroll…

            • I absolutely love the Zoline illustration! It’s fantastic, and entropic (but would we expect anything else from the author of “The Heat Death”?).

              Thanks for the scan. When I finish writing this review of McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978) I’ll include it in this post.

  2. I read “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” in the American edition of New Worlds 7, which was instead called New Worlds #6, causing me (and I’m sure many others) a certain amount of confusion in later years. This would have been around when it came out, maybe a bit later like 1976, but I was still in high school, and I was thoroughly impressed — I agree wholly with your review. It is an exceptional story.

    Somehow I didn’t manage to keep track of Arnason’s work and I didn’t return to her until the 1990s when her Hwarhath stories began appearing, and she became (and remains) one of my favorite writers. Stories like “The Lovers”, “The Actors”, “Dapple”, and “The Potter of Bones” (all Hwarhath stories) and “Stellar Harvest” (a Lydia Duluth story) are among the very best of recent decades, and while they were never ignored, they never got the notice they deserved.

    • I was thoroughly impressed with “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons.” And reading it helped me understand what she was doing with “Ace 167.” In a certain way, I can imagine that the pulp Venus in the latter and the adventures in the former are what drew her to science fiction.

      But yes, I constantly refer to to figure out which New Worlds volume I’m supposed to be looking at. Same thing with the Carnell New Writings in SF volumes which get muddled numbers for American editions…

      I’d love to know more about her fascination with Detroit. Was it simply how frequently Detroit was on the news? The American industrial marvel of a city falling into ruins… She was born in New York and according to Wikipedia, before 1949 her family (Art historians, socialists, proponents of the avant-garde) moved from “New York City to Chicago; Washington, D.C.; London; Paris; and St. Paul, Minnesota.” And has lived in Minneapolis since 1974.

      I suspect I’ll try to find more of her short stories published in the 70s and early 80s. It looks most of the rest of her short fiction from those decades were fantasy (as you know, her first novel–The Sword Smith (1978)– was fantasy). I have a copy of her first science fiction novel To the Resurrection Station (1986). And despite its 1986 publication date, I might read it soon.

      • I read Ring of Swords many years and don’t remember much about it, other than that I liked it. A few years ago I found a couple of her early paperbacks at a used books store and read them.

        Daughter of the Bear King is a feminist novel about a woman who travels to another world and realizes she can turn into a bear. It’s interesting in that (if I remember right) no male characters appear “on page.” I didn’t love the writing, though; she writes in mostly short, staccato sentences, so it reads oddly. I have no idea if she wrote it that way on purpose, or if it’s just an early novel.

        To the Resurrection Station was pretty interesting. It’s a tongue-firmly-in-cheek space voyage in which the bratty main character flees an arranged marriage. The voyage gets pretty strange, as Arnason gleefully plays with and subverts tropes. It still reads a bit like an early novel, though.

        I’ve been reading some early novels by a variety of authors in the last few years, and it’s fun to discover some really strange (though often less-polished) novels that probably wouldn’t get published today. It’s also fascinating to watch authors improve — it’s amazing to read early Le Guins (Rocannon’s World and the two that followed) when you know that her stunning novel The Left Hand of Darkness would be published only a few years later.

  3. I just read “Warlord…” at your recommendation. It’s a remarkable story. I was especially impressed by how she managed to pull me in to be invested in both the sci-fi writer heroine and the plight of 409 and the SF heroine. The fictitious author’s investment in her own characters made my investment in the characters much stronger than it would have otherwise been, and the final few scenes had me wanting more. I didn’t see the ending as particularly bleak or hopeless, but rather the author within the story getting geared up to find another way to rescue 409. She just had to wait to think of it, in the midst of her own situation.

  4. Very exciting to see you reviewing some work by Arnason! She’s one of the most criminally neglected writers in science fiction in my opinion. Woman of the Iron people is probably among my top 10 sf books of all time. It’s got major Ursula K Le Guin vibes; very anthropological, very taoist/communist influenced (which gets especially interesting when she considers the interactions between those ideologies and the growing influence of postmodernism). It’s also interesting for the ways in which it blends fantasy and science fiction elements. There’s a lot of mythology and hero’s journey type of stuff. There are some post-colonialist ideas, some environmental ideas, some interesting gender stuff, some fun with linguistics; all in all an extremely intelligent and thoughtful work of fiction.

    Unfortunately, despite the critical acclaim (it won the Tiptree and the Mythopoeic and was a Campbell finalist) I’m pretty sure I recall reading somewhere that the novel sold poorly and kind of tanked Arnason’s writing career (though I may be making that up, since I can’t track down the source). Either way, I think that novel deserves to be better known; highly recommend picking up a copy if you ever come across one.

    (also, apologies if this is a duplicate comment; I’m not sure if my first one went through or not)

    • Thank you for the great comment. Have you read any of her early short fiction? I wish she wrote more in the 70s — that’s for sure. I also own her first novel (fantasy) The Sword Smith (1978).

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