Do you enjoy space opera, fantastic technologies, millennia-old mysteries, and terrifically wicked villains who want their offspring to embrace their dark side? Do you like women too? Then you'll love 1981's Hugo winner, The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge.
You know, I have been trying to write this post for about three weeks now, and failing miserably. I keep thinking about this quote from Harlan Ellison's introduction to his short-story collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. Ellison recalls an editor saying to him: "There isn't, really, something interesting to say about every story ever written — including, often, the very best ones."
Cripes, is that true. You know that old saw about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Well, sometimes writing about writing feels like dancing about architecture. Because even though it's fairly simple to take a piece of writing, select some of its attributes, and then comment on them, you're ultimately never going to replicate everything that matters (and boy is that a deliberately vague verb) about it short of just reprinting it in its entirety. And even if you did do that and annotated every single interesting sentence or paragraph — well, then you basically break the spell the original writer was weaving, which means you're still not replicating everything that matters.
Honestly, it seems like I could save a lot of trouble by just condensing every review or critique into five words: "Read the damn thing yourself."
But probably I am thinking too much about this, because the empirical fact remains that there is a lot of good writing about writing. And someday, I hope to do some of it, but in the meantime, I want to compare The Snow Queen to Star Wars.
Yup, Star Wars.
Here are some important things to know about The Snow Queen: It was inspired in part by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, and by Joan Vinge's reading of The White Goddess, a book by the poet Robert Graves in which he attempts to link ancient female deities from a number of different cultures to a common source. (I actually went so far as to get a copy of The White Goddess from the library for this post, but lucky for you, it was too long for me to finish in time, so you're spared whatever pretentious semiprofundities that would have generated. It wouldn't have been pretty, I can tell you that.)
Anyway, the novel is a space opera. I am going to sum up the plot now, something that in reviewer school they say you shouldn't spend more than two sentences doing. I'll take more than two sentences, because there is a lot going on here:
The main character is a girl named Moon, who lives on the planet Tiamat. Tiamat is mostly water and has two suns, which revolve around a black hole. For about 150 years at a time, the black hole serves as a Stargate connecting the system to the other inhabited planets of the Hegemony (a remnant of the long-gone Empire, which possessed all sorts of super-science that no one has learned to duplicate). During that century and a half, Hegemony offworlders can travel to Tiamat, bringing their technology with them; they pretty much confine themselves to Tiamat's ancient city, Carbuncle (shaped like a vertical spiral seashell, it's as much artifact as it is dwelling-place, and its origins are forgotten), where they deal with the planet's modern, tech-using Winter clan. The other clan, the Summers, are simple peasant folk who fish and live in cottages.
The Winter clan queen, Arienrhod, rules Tiamat for this period — she remains young by injecting herself with blood from one of the planet's native life-forms, friendly sea creatures called mers. Arienrhod also provides mer blood to other people she favors, including Hegemony bigwigs. (Need I explain that the blood is collected in gruesome hunts?)
After 150 years, gravitational stresses induced by the nearness of the twin stars' orbits to the black hole make it unusable as a Stargate. The offworlders pack up to return to Hegemony space — and take all their technology with them. They do this — and prevent both Winters and Summers from ever traveling offworld — because they want Tiamat to keep regressing to primitivity, so that every time the gate opens again, they can come back and offer their fancy gadgets in trade for the mer blood again. Just before the Hegemony folks leave each time, the Winter Queen is sacrificed and replaced by a new Summer Queen, who reigns until the gate reopens.
(You see what I mean about breaking the spell the original writer was weaving? Typing all that out, I couldn't help but think, Jesus, this plot sounds like a mess — overly contrived and totally dependent on implausibilities. But many, probably most, stories are implausible in some way — they're supposed to be; we already get more than enough of the plausible from real life. Picking at them for not being 100 percent rigorously realistic is like criticizing marathoners for not just driving the 26.2 miles — it misses the whole point. The point is that a good storyteller conveys the implausibilities in such a way that we accept them, and Vinge absolutely does that.)
OK, so, Star Wars: Moon is a simple peasant Summer girl who becomes a member of an ancient cabalistic order, the sibyls, who have the power to answer nearly any question asked of them. She is also not who she thinks she is, but actually an unknowing clone of Arienrhod — one of nine, which the Winter Queen covertly implanted in other women's wombs at a bacchanal festival twenty years earlier, in the hope of indirectly maintaining her rule even after her death.
I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I reveal that, like Luke Skywalker, Moon must eventually use her new abilities to end her secret genetic parent's tyrannical reign. And she is helped along the way by benevolent smugglers (including a scary but friendly alien only one other person can talk to), a trusty robot, and a quasi-supernatural force that influences events in the service of a greater purpose.
Those similarities are just coincidental — Vinge wasn't stealing from George Lucas, just employing some reliable SF tropes and demonstrating that Joseph Campbell was right about the Hero's Journey: Remember, when the novel was published, nobody even knew Darth Vader was related to Luke. (Eerie, though, some of the correspondences — Moon visits another world and learns to use her sibyl powers from a teacher who says things like "Do you feel that you more time need?" and "Is it because tomorrow you back to the spaceport must go?"*)
But the fact of their coincidence doesn't make them any less fun to encounter. I really like Star Wars! I really like ancient cabalistic orders and secret genetic parentage and quasi-supernatural forces. I like space opera, with sweeping action and political intrigues and enduring love and the fates of whole star systems at stake. I like it so much I have even tried to get several very intelligent people to read Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series, which frankly is not at all easy to do, because they are so goddamn pervasively corny.
I think I will have more luck getting them to read The Snow Queen and the three other stories Vinge has written in its universe. It delivers all that epic deliciousness, but with an added layer of substance that makes it more than just mind candy.
It is, for one, a deeply — quietly, but thoroughly — feminist book. Which is amazing, for all that just two Hugo winners ago, we were talking about how tough that was at the time. Vinge opens the same dedication in which she gives credit to Andersen and Graves with the words "To the Lady, who gives, and who takes away" and ends by thanking "my mother, for teaching me a woman's strength, and giving me the freedom to become."
There is just woman-centric symbolism all over the place in this book, from Tiamat's name to Moon's to all the water covering the planet. (The local religion there revolves around goddess worship, too.) Besides Moon and Arienrhod, there are at least six other significant women characters, crushing the not-even-invented-at-the-time Bechdel test. One describes her childhood in a society where women had no rights; another finds herself thrust into a position of leadership among men who don't think she deserves it.
But these are just their stories — experiences that real people do go through, related here honestly and not stridently or preachily. Vinge has some messages, but she has built them into her characters, used them as material for telling an engaging, resonant story.
And for all that, a traditional one, as well. The Snow Queen is a love story, too. Like the fairy tale it's based on, it is at its core about a girl and boy who grow up loving one another, and are separated when evil gets into his heart — and how she never gives up in her quest to redeem him. The story of Moon's lover Sparks, and his descent into near-total piece-of-shit-itude in Carbuncle, under Arienrhod's thumb, is one of the more impressive parts of a very strong book. Vinge evokes a genuine sense of helplessness in him, a sense that he's watching himself become a worse person and wishing so hard to be different but not strong enough, and that's what keeps you with him as a reader.
Then there is Arienrhod herself. Though maybe not quite the scene-stealer Darth Vader is (who is?), she is a fine, richly realized villain of the best sort — the kind who have a perfectly laudable motivation for all their machinations. She's cold and mostly dead inside, but at least she knows it, has the good grace to regret it faintly (which is as much as she can), and for all her egotism honestly wants a better future for Tiamat. Sexy as hell she is, too.
Mythology buffs will dig the countless references and names Vinge has strewn throughout the book, and you could write a solid term paper about how she uses masks as a thematic symbol. They are seriously all over the place, with the narrative really functioning itself as meta-mask, as more and more hidden truths — the nature of the sibyls, the purpose of Carbuncle, the secret of the mers — are uncovered, culminating in a catharsis as Moon assumes her destined place. (Which achievement is not presented as any kind of total victory — the seeds of uncertainty are planted to remind you that success normally just means there'll be more work ahead.)
As always, so much more here I could talk about — lots of moments and characters and ideas I haven't even mentioned. (Like the battle of music and winds that is like something out of a fairy tale, as awesome as any lightsaber fight.) Anyway, if you like grand adventures and space mysticism, and like it even more when it's thoughtful, really all I can say is — you knew this was coming, right? — read the damn thing yourself.
"Blogging the Hugos" is taking some time off for the holidays, and will return in the new year. In the next installment: Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh, from 1982. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.
*I suppose Lucas could've stolen that from Vinge. But I'd guess it was synchronicity.