Hwarhath Stories: (Not So) Transgressive Tales by Aliens: A Review

Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens (2016)
Written by: Eleanor Arnason
Pages: 392 (Kindle)
Publisher: Aqueduct Press

Why I Chose It: I actually haven’t heard of this author or her stories before seeing that this book was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. The title intrigued me and it’s been a while since I’ve read an anthology, so I gave it a shot.

The premise:

Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens collects a dozen Hwarhath tales with commentary by their translator. As the translator notes, “Humanity has encountered only one other species able to travel among the stars. This species, who call themselves the hwarhath, or ‘people,’ are also the only intelligent species so far encountered. Of course, we interest and puzzle and disturb each other… The stories in this collection were written after the hwarhath learned enough about humanity to realize how similar (and different) we are. Our existence has called into question many ideas about life and morality that most hwarhath would have called certain a century ago…”

Spoiler free review below!


Discussion: Hwarhath Stories is a hefty book, at least I would guess so if I had a printed version in my hands at 392 pages of short stories. It collects previously published stories as well as new stories in the Hwarhath universe, which started with the novel Ring of Swords (1994). The novel is about the first contact between us and the Hwarhath, a humanoid alien race. This book anthropological collection of stories from Hwarhath culture for human consumption.

There are two main types of stories here: historical romances which take place in Hwarhath history that resembles our medieval era, and more recent romances set in the scientific age. The historical romances were quite indistinguishable from typical fantasy stories. The alien race are covered in fur and so with the lack of science, it seems like they were a fantasy race. They are also indeed all romances in some form or another. For Hwarhath, romance is always same-sex. Heterosexual love doesn’t exist (or at least is condemned, because we see that it does exist in some people), and sex between men and women is strictly used for procreation. So the romances are usually same-sex, although there was some stories for forbidden (heterosexual) love. For the science romances, it is pretty much the same as the historical but the setting is now in the modern age where they have contact with humans.

With that all explained, I really struggled to connect with this book. Maybe it’s because I never read the novels in this universe, but I don’t think that’s it because the setting was very well explained in the introduction. What I found most problematic was the way the author handled gender.

I was excited to see that this universe had an alien race that was pretty much all gay. Some of the actual circumstances between the lovers in the stories were interesting, if not cliché, such as the soldiers separated by war or the man and woman forbidden to love each other. What I really had a problem with was how the genders were treated: they are described in a very essentialist way and along the lines of  stereotypical human gender roles. For example, men are violent by nature and are separated from the women completely except when they breed. Men are also direct, loyal and fighters. Women, on the other hand, run the household and bear children. Women’s families contract them out for breeding with other families, even against their wishes.

I just couldn’t for the life of me understand why the alien race were drawn up with stereotypes of men and women of humans. There is barely any allowance for divergence. I could have maybe understood this in the historical section of the book, as we were also more ignorant in the past, but then at the beginning of the science romances, the author writes:

As they moved into space, fiction about space travel and alien planets became inevitable. The male romances are about love and violence in far-distant places. The female romances describe the establishing of new families in space stations, on moons, and in other star systems. (Location 4439, Kindle Edition)

What a boring way to write science fiction.

On top of that, it made me very uncomfortable to read about women and men being subjected to unwanted sex for breeding purposes.

Many times I wanted to quit this book but I kept on in the hopes of it changing but sadly, it did not. The stories were also all very similar: over and over again we read about the strict gender roles and those who fall or don’t fall into those boundaries, without the author ever subverting these ideas. From Hwarhath history to the modern age they are still living the same way.

In Conclusion: Even though this book is full of m/m and f/f romance, you’re better off looking elsewhere if you want gay romance. I found these stories very unenjoyable. There is so much emphasis on gender roles, not enough subversion, and huge lack of any science fiction. Maybe it’s because I never read the novels, but I’m not sure I want to anymore. I’m really questioning why this has received so much praise so if anyone has any idea please let me know.

7 Comments

  • Lane Robins March 31, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Peculiar that all the stories are so alike in the gender roles. Is Arnason trying to explore those gender roles in different ways, or is she just presenting them? I think the subtitle of “Transgressive Tales” would imply multiple looks at a theme.

    Reply
    • Lisa P April 5, 2017 at 10:27 am

      It’s more like she’s presenting them. A frustrating part for me was that even through history up until the modern age, they haven’t changed much at all.

      Reply
  • AMAZING NEWS: 4-2-2017 - Amazing Stories April 2, 2017 at 11:04 am

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  • Kelly McCarty April 3, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    I also found myself wondering why the two books I read for the Philip K. Dick Award, Consider and The Mercy Journals, had received so much praise. Whoever picked the nominees really seems to have dropped the ball.

    Reply
    • Shara White April 3, 2017 at 11:46 pm

      I’m getting the urge to do some digging to find out how the nominees are chosen from year to year, because this year seems really…. different…. than previous years.

      Reply
      • Lisa P April 5, 2017 at 10:28 am

        Now that’s interesting! I have never heard of any of these either. Usually the PKD Award has some good stuff on the short list? Calls for some investigative journalism…

        Reply
        • Shara White April 5, 2017 at 1:04 pm

          Take a peek at the comments at the Unpronounceable review, as we start discussing this further….

          Reply

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