The first story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 2002. This story is part of Arnason’s Hwarhath series of tales about a planet of intelligent fur-covered beings where homosexuality is the norm for relationships and heterosexuality is used for procreation. Eleanor Arnason stories explore the themes of art, anthropology, sociology, sexuality, and feminism by creating science fiction stories that feel like folk tales and allegories. The narrator of “The Potter of Bones” is from the planet’s present time, and she is telling stories that come down from early history, that could be closer to myths.
The heroine of this story is Tulwar Haik. Tulwar is a clan name, so her personal name is Haik. She has become a legendary figure on this alien planet. Haik was a potter who loved finding fossils and is known on her world for developing the theory of evolution. Haik’s story recapitulates Darwin’s discoveries on Earth. “The Potter of Bones” uses a richly drawn fantasy about aliens that sound human but look like furry animals to comment on human society, especially about gender and race.
Is this story science fiction? Eleanor Arnason’s stories often remind me of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re set on other worlds, which makes them science fiction, but they often feel like folk tales, which makes me think they’re fantasy. Their stories are intensely sociological and often come across as fables for grown-ups.
I am listening to The Very Best of the Best while thinking about the nature of science fiction and how it is written. Being the lead story in a collection of science fiction that claims to be the very best of the best, suggests that Gardner Dozois must have loved “The Potter of Bones” very much. He bought it for Asimov’s when he was the editor there, included it in his annual best-of collections for America and Great Britain and reprints it again here. I had read “The Potter of Bones” when it came out because I like Arnason’s stories about Hwarhath. I found it a compelling read, especially now that I got to listen to it, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but to be honest, it’s not my kind of science fiction.
How can “The Potter of Bones” be science fiction that entertained me a great deal and not be my kind of science fiction? And how many kinds of science fiction are there? See, that’s why I want to review the stories in The Very Best of the Best. I’ve listened to the first three stories since yesterday (and two are novellas) and even though each is dazzling in their own way, none of them were my kind of science fiction.
I’ve always wanted to write science fiction. And I’ve tried. I’ve even attended Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, but my stories were never any good. I’m reading and listening to this anthology very closely to study what makes science fiction tick. “The Potter of Bones” stands out for its worldbuilding. Arnason has been writing Hwarhath stories since 1993. They were collected into Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens in 2016. I generally disliked science fiction series because my favorite aspect of science fiction is its ideas, so stories that constantly recycle its world-building ideas seem less impressive with each successive story.
However, I’m discovering why writers love writing stories in a series. It takes a tremendous mental effort to create new worlds for science fiction. The reason why the Harry Potter stories are the most successful on the planet today is that J. K. Rowling imagined such an incredibly detailed fictional world. Starting from scratch every time you sit down to write a story would give each story a costly overhead. If the writer can assume their readers already understand how the fictional world works they can get down to the storytelling quicker.
Reading the stories in The Very Best of the Best perfectly illustrates the importance of world-building to writing science fiction and fantasy. It often explains why stories get rated 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank. It also tells me that if I want to write science fiction I’ve got to up the information density of my fiction to include an abundance of imagined details. Here’s the opening for “The Potter of Bones”:
The northeast coast of the Great Southern Continent is hilly and full of inlets. These make good harbors, their waters deep and protected from the wind by steep slopes and grey stone cliffs. Dark forests top the hills. Pebble beaches edge the harbors. There are many little towns.
The climate would be tropical, except for a polar current which runs along the coast, bringing fish and rain. The local families prosper through fishing and the rich, semi-tropical forests that grow inland. Blackwood grows there, and iridescent greywood, as well as lovely ornamentals: night-blooming starflower, day-blooming skyflower and the matriarch of trees, crown-of-fire. The first two species are cut for lumber. The last three are gathered as saplings, potted and shipped to distant ports, where affluent families buy them for their courtyards.
Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to raise the saplings in glass houses anywhere on the planet. But most folk still prefer trees gathered in their native forests. A plant grows better, if it’s been pollinated naturally by the fabulous flying bugs of the south, watered by the misty coastal rains and dug up by a forester who’s the heir to generations of diggers and potters. The most successful brands have names like “Coastal Rain” and emblems suggesting their authenticity: a forester holding a trowel, a night bug with broad furry wings floating over blossoms.
Can you even count every detail that Arnason thought up as she typed those sentences? And don’t confuse the technical term “world-building” used in science fiction to mean just describing how a fictionalized world works. In the next story in this anthology, Charles Stross describes Earth just a few decades into the future and it is overflowing with strangely different details, each of which had to be imagined by Stross. World-building can include any detail that paints the science fiction or fantasy of a story. Here’s how we learn that Haik got into fossils:
The young Tulwar, her playmates, found the topic boring. Who could possibly care about shells made of stone? “They don’t shimmer like living shells, and there’s nothing edible in them. Think about living shellfish, Haik! Or fish! Or trees like the ones that support our family!”
If her kin could not answer her questions, she’d find answers herself. Haik continued her study. She was helped by the fact that the strata along the northeast coast had not buckled or been folded over. Top was new. Bottom was old. She could trace the history of the region’s life by climbing up.
At first, she didn’t realize this. Instead, she got a hammer and began to break out fossils, taking them to one of the town’s many empty houses. There, through trial and error, she learned to clean the fossils and to open them. “Unfolding with a hammer,” she called the process.
Nowadays we discourage this kind of ignorant experimentation, especially at important sites. Remember this story takes place in the distant past. There was no one on the planet able to teach Haik; and the fossils she destroyed would have been destroyed by erosion long before the science of paleontology came into existence.
She began by collecting shells, laying them out on the tables left behind when the house was abandoned. Imagine her in a shadowy room, light slanting through the shutters. The floor is thick with dust. The paintings on the walls, fish and flowering trees, are peeling. Haik—a thin red adolescent in a tunic—bends over her shells, arranging them. She has discovered one of the great pleasures of intelligent life: organization or (as we call it now) taxonomy.
This was not her invention. All people organize information. But most people organize information for which they can see an obvious use: varieties of fish and their habits, for example. Haik had discovered the pleasure of knowledge that has no evident use. Maybe, in the shadows, you should imagine an old woman with white fur, dressed in a roughly woven tunic. Her feet are bare and caked with dirt. She watches Haik with amusement.
In time, Haik noticed there was a pattern to where she found her shells. The ones on the cliff tops were familiar. She could find similar or identical shells washed up on the Tulwar beaches. But as she descended, the creatures in the stone became increasingly strange. Also, and this puzzled her, certain strata were full of bones that obviously belonged to land animals. Had the ocean advanced, then retreated, then advanced again? How old were these objects? How much time had passed since they were alive, if they had ever been alive? Some of her senior kin believed they were mineral formations that bore an odd resemblance to the remains of animals. “The world is full of repetition and similarity,” they told Haik, “evidence the Goddess has little interest in originality.”
Now part of this world-building is character development. Notice how Arnason brings in human history to weave her story. Arnason needs to know geology and archeology to sculpt her theme. And taxonomy played a very important part in Darwin’s discovery of evolution.
“The Potter of Bones,” tells several stories about Haik. I won’t quote them all, but Haik has to become a potter. Eventually, she becomes a lover of a traveling actress, Dapple. Haik has children, which Arnason uses to explain mating customs. And Haik grows old. “The Potter of Bones” gathers the legends about Haik and Dapple that the narrator uses to understand their planet’s history, which lets Arnason comment on how we know what we know about our past. “The Potter of Bones” is also about the different forms of communicating history and story.
Eleanor Arnason uses her stories about furry aliens to analyze human society. Does that mean a good science fiction writer must also be a philosopher and cultural observer? If I just consider the three stories I’ve read so far in this anthology, then the answer is a definite yes.
I’ve always judged science fiction by the validity of its speculation about future technology or if extrapolated trends will actually unfold. With Arnason and writers like Le Guin, should I wonder if their imagined aliens and alien societies could possibly exist? Ultimately, isn’t the world-building in “The Potter of Bones” more akin to Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement or Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward than to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy?
Or, is Arnason’s world-building more like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, not meant to be speculation at all, but a deeply adult fairy tale? Gardner Dozois calls “The Potter of Bones” science fiction. The story is about geology, fossils, evolution, classification, taxonomy, so there is a lot of science in it. Of course, it could be a fantasy that uses science rather than magic as its unifying theme.
My kind of science fiction are stories that speculate and extrapolate about the future. There are all kinds of science fiction, and I read all kinds. But the kind I love most is the science fiction that teaches me about the future in the same way history helps me model the past. “The Potter of Bones” is not that kind of science fiction. Of course, it might be science fiction that teaches us about who we are now.
James Wallace Harris, 2/28/19