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The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge

February 22, 2021

My friend Jenny and I decided to read a book together, and we ended up choosing Joan D. Vinge’s classic science fiction novel The Snow Queen (published in 1980) because neither of us had read it yet and we felt it was high time.

Jeanne: There are lots of good things about The Snow Queen. There are also lots of less good things. There are just lots of things, as it’s 465 pages long.

Jenny: The thesis of my position paper is that this was too many pages to be. Has Joan Vinge thought about writing this same book but only two hundred and sixty-five pages long? How about that?

So the premise of this book is that this planet called Tiamat is ruled alternately by a queen from the Winters and the Summers, and every 150 years they swap out who rules. During the reign of the Winter Queen, the fancy-fancy technology planets have access to Tiamat via a wormhole, and during the reign of the Summers: No wormhole, no planet visitors, no trade in fancy tech. The current Winter Queen, Arienrhod, has come up with a scheme to prolong her reign: She impregnates a bunch of unconscious Summer women with cloned versions of herself, in the hopes that one of the clones will grow up and become the Summer Queen.

Fast forward the number of years it takes for a clone to grow up, and our hero is a girl called Moon. She and her cousin Sparks (yes) both plan to be sibyls when they grow up. It only works out for her. In despair, Sparks sets out to make his fortune in the city, and what with one thing and another, they are separated. I can’t describe to you how little I cared about them ever finding each other again. IS THAT CALLOUS?

Jeanne: no, it is not callous because we do not know them. I thought they were going to be the kind of background characters who show what a world is like before we meet the main characters on the big stage. But then they turn out to be the main characters? And the only thing we know about Moon is that she’s a sibyl and even though Sparks leaves her in their hometown because he can’t be a sibyl too, her driving motivation is to be with him again. And the only thing we know about Sparks is that his father was an “off-worlder” and that motivates him to make his way to the big city where “summers” like him are considered bigger rubes than rural Ohioans in downtown Manhattan–they are “superstitious fish-farmers reeking of seaweed and tradition.”

I thought the pace picked up once Moon accidentally left the planet with some smugglers and Sparks started meeting people in the city. A policewoman, a “Blue,” named Jerusha gives readers the first clue about why the sibyls are important and why they are not allowed in the city, called Carbuncle: “Sibyls were the carriers of the Old Empire’s lost wisdom, meant to give the new civilizations that built on its ruins a key to unlock its buried secrets. And if there was anything the Hegemony’s wealthy and powerful didn’t want, it was to see this world stand on its own feet and grow strong enough to deny them the water of life.”

The “water of life” is produced by killing the mers who live in the seas of Tiamat. Predictably, for a book published in 1980, the colonists, “winters,” claim that the mers are non-sentient, only to find out later that they are sentient creatures. (Note: I did enjoy the “snowbird” theme in this novel, that the off-worlders are called “winters” because they are transients who have little interest in the struggles of the native people.)

Jerusha is fighting to keep her job in a patriarchal culture that doesn’t value her, and I identify with her so much it hurts. I’m assuming (hoping) that this is less true for Jenny, as I am older. When we first started to learn anything about Jerusha I was amazed at how much her struggles resemble mine at work. She says “I’m fed up with this! I’d do anything to be doing an honest job, somewhere where they want a real police force and not a laughingstock.” When her friend and colleague asks why she doesn’t transfer, she asks “do you have any idea how long it takes to get a transfer?” And then she sighs and says “Besides, I’ve tried. No luck. They ‘need me here.’” We are told that “the bitterness in her voice burned like acid.” And then she gets the question I’ve been asked so often: “why don’t you quit?” The answer, of course, is a line from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Reasons to Survive November,” that “my survival is their failure.”

Jenny: I hate that you’ve felt that way about your job! And yeah, I found Jerusha massively more compelling than our two main characters (or the damn queen). I’d have been a million times more interested in a book that focused on her, Ngenet, and the rest of the smugglers, not least because the author spent time showing us why those characters acted the way they did. This is particularly true for Jerusha: you really get to see what her moral code is and why she keeps pressing on with a job that seems so thankless.

Jeanne: Yes. There’s a moment when Jerusha is at work that kills me, another part where I really identify with her. She finds that “her eyes were hot and brimming suddenly; she did not blink until the reservoir of tears subsided, so that none escaped her control.” She cares, but she can’t let anyone she works with see that.

Jenny: I wish Joan Vinge had given Moon even a spark (no pun intended) of an interesting personality, because one thing I truly loved about the book was the way it blended fantasy and SF elements. What seems at first to be magic — the sibyls’ power to form a psychic connection and find information they don’t consciously know — turns out to be… well, still magic, I guess. But, like, science-y magic! There’s a sort of infinite Old Empire data source that the sibyls are drawing on, and Moon discovers late in the book that the data source is located on (in?) Tiamat. That’s genuinely really cool! Why wasn’t the whole book about that?

Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, I was immediately hung up on the situation with the mers. As with the sibyls’ power, the mers seem to be magical and turn out to be science, mutant creatures that were developed on purpose, with science, to have a kind of sentience that isn’t easily accessed through human means / human communication. Again, very cool! It’s the kind of xenobiology that appeals to me, where the species are so different in mindset and culture that it’s nearly impossible to find a point of connection between them.

But I couldn’t get over the mer slaughter. Regardless of their sentience (I guessed they were sentient too, and I guess we can’t blame an older book for using a trope that feels, forty years after the book’s publication, a bit passe), the brutality of the mer hunting seemed indefensible — and it seemed clear early on that the book thought so, too. It is unaccountable to me that we’re asked, in the final third of the book, to witness Sparks doing an absolutely brutal mer hunt, motivated by revenge on Ngenet (who’s trying to protect the mers in his area), and then to be asked to believe that Sparks is a good person really, underneath it all. Is he? Is he, Jeanne?

Jeanne: No, he isn’t. But who among us is good? Sparks is an object for Moon’s affection and a sign that she won’t turn out as bad as her clone-mother, Arianrhod, because she treats him–even him, having seen what she saw–as a person who is still capable of atoning for his mistakes.

Jenny: I think this is what bugged me! We see no sign that he’s interested in atoning for his mistakes, or that he’s working on any kind of plan to atone for his mistakes. The idea Moon is pushing is that he’s good at the core, and I think I’ve become (over the past four years especially) allergic to the idea that there’s some core of moral character that can be divorced from the actions a person takes. I wanted to see Sparks commit to repairing the harm he’s done, maybe even, I dunno, apologize to some of the people he’s hurt. But that doesn’t happen, and it really damaged the “happy” ending for me.

Jeanne: I agree that the way Vinge blends fantasy and SF elements is one of the best parts of this book. I am always enthusiastic about a world in which there’s old technology that the characters don’t know how to use because they’re the degenerate remnants of an earlier, more advanced society. I love the explanation Moon gets on another planet, Kharemough, about what it means to be a sibyl when she has asked “how could the Old Empire put sibyls everywhere, if no god did? Weren’t they only humans?” The answer is:

“They were….But in some ways they had the power of gods. They could travel between worlds directly, in weeks or months, not years–they had hyperlight communicators and stardrives. And yet their Empire fell apart in the end…even they overextended themselves. Or so we think.
But even as the Empire fell, some remarkable and selfless group had created a storehouse, a data bank, of the Empire’s learning in every area of human knowledge. They had hoped that with all of humanity’s discoveries recorded in one central, inviolable place, they would make the impending collapse of their civilization less complete, and the rebuilding that much swifter. And because they realized that technical collapse might be virtually total on many worlds, they had devised the simplest outlets for their data bank that they could conceive of–human beings. Sibyls, who could transmit their receptivity directly to their chosen successors, blood to blood.”

And here’s the really interesting part–it’s not just technology, it’s also biology:

“A sibyl’s ‘infection’ is a man-made disease, a bio-technical construct so sophisticated that we’ve barely begun to unravel its subtleties. It creates, or perhaps implants, certain restructurings in the brain tissue that make a sibyl receptive to a faster-than-light communication medium. You become a receiver, and a transmitter. You communicate directly with the original data source. That’s where you are when you drown in nothingness: within the computer’s circuits, not lost in space. Or sometimes you are in communion with other sibyls living on other worlds, who have answers to questions the Old Empire never thought to ask.”

I’m less enthusiastic about any plot that involves Fate, especially when Fate is a blind old woman and turns out to have been another sibyl all along. But again, it seems to me that Jerusha is the true heart of the story, because at the end of it she provides context for what has happened on Tiamat. When it seems like Moon has triumphed and everything is going to be okay, one of Jerusha’s officers asks “what force in the galaxy is stronger than she is?” and Jerusha replies “indifference….Indifference…is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows. And that’s what gives it so much power.”

Jenny: I loved this quote!! I agree that it felt like the heart of the book. Apart from the Moon/Sparks relationship, which as I say I did not care about at all, the book was at its strongest when it showed characters working for what they cared about. Like, Ngenet was a fairly minor character, but I felt so tender toward him knowing that he was trying to save and protect the mers in his area.

Jeanne: Although there are things about The Snow Queen that might seem dated, the warning against indifference does not. In the last four decades we’ve seen what happens when neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. –What do you think, Jenny? Why does the Queen put the “shards of ice” (the metaphor from the original fairy tale) into Sparks’ heart? Is she merely a warning against a heartless female in power?

Jenny: I would have loved to understand the Queen better! She’s completely indifferent to the suffering of her people, to the point of planning biological warfare against the Summers to prevent them from interfering in her plan for dominance, but she cares a lot about Sparks and about retaining her power, and I was never sure why either of those things was important to her. She did feel like a more generic woman-in-power villain, which was frustrating, especially in contrast to Jerusha, who is ambitious in her own way, but who tries to do the right thing, no matter the cost to herself.

Jenny: Final verdict: Incredible worldbuilding, shame about the protagonists.
Jeanne: We give our award for best supporting characters to Jerusha and Ngenet.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2021 9:16 am

    Now after reading your review, I do remember the book. I recall I picked it up because of Vernor Vinge (isn’t she his wife) and I’d loved the books of his I’d read.

    I didn’t read it when it first came out but less than 10 years later, so I was both young and indiscriminate in my reading taste. I probably would dislike the book today. And that’s why I won’t read Song of the Lark again. I read it at exactly the right time for it to have a powerful, positive impact on me and I don’t want to lose that.

    • February 22, 2021 8:49 pm

      Vernor and Joan were married from 1972 to 1979 (I looked it up).
      It is sometimes good to leave well enough alone when you’ve loved a book. When you reread one and it’s not as good as you remembered, Jo Walton says “the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck.” I love her way with words–you can read her whole piece on the Suck Fairy here: https://www.tor.com/2010/09/28/the-suck-fairy/

  2. February 22, 2021 4:11 pm

    That was a fun review to read! too bad the book didn’t quite live up to its potential. I have always thought the cover is really pretty though and have been tempted to read it based on that alone. I think I will just keep admiring the cover 🙂

    • February 22, 2021 8:53 pm

      If you like the fairy tale at all you might like this re-telling. I didn’t really go much into how it adds cool SF elements but sticks fairly close to the feeling of the story about Gerda and Kai.

  3. February 23, 2021 9:02 pm

    I remember the illustrated copy of The Snow Queen we had in the house when I was growing up. I think it had a 3-D cover of some sort. Do you think this book was a classic because it was an early work of science fiction written by a woman, and now we’ve been spoiled by having so much great s/f written by women published since then? Although that would be pretty sad, if this book came out in 1980!

    • February 23, 2021 9:57 pm

      I think it’s called a classic because of the detailed world-building and because Vinge was tapping into the late 1970’s fascination with the hero’s journey, the same fascination that produced the first Star Wars movie.
      I also think that since Mary Shelley invented it (yeah, I’m going with that argument), science fiction has often been by women. Some of them didn’t write under feminine names, like Andre Norton and C.L. Moore.

  4. russell1200 permalink
    February 24, 2021 7:41 am

    I saw that you had done a review, and all I could remember was that is was a complete slog of a book. LOL- I guess I remembered that part correctly.

    • February 24, 2021 8:21 am

      It was a bit of a slog for me, and Jenny thought so too. Maybe it’s because there’s so much worldbuilding.

  5. February 24, 2021 1:06 pm

    I loved reading your discussion! Sorry the book ended up being a slog but you were so good at articulating the pros and cons. I find it so frustrating when secondary characters are better than the main ones. But at least it provides some point of interest to get you through the book.

    • February 24, 2021 1:18 pm

      Thanks!
      Yes, it is a little frustrating when the secondary characters are more interesting, but it didn’t feel too much like a slog since I was reading the book with a friend.

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