The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
Review by Requires Hate
The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. All is not lost if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space.
This is a childhood favorite. Unfortunately, though for the most part it does hold up fairly well – and has been noted for its gorgeous cover art – rereading it again years later does bring to light some… problems.
But it still remains one of my favorite things, a book I know so well that I can review it from memory.
It’s a retelling of “The Snow Queen” done up in political space opera, a feminist answer to Star Wars published some three years after the first installment of George Lucas’ overrated, humdrum lowest-common-denominator toddler’s fantasy was vomited into cinemas.
This contrast isn’t to say that Joan D Vinge’s novel doesn’t have its share of the twee: it’s hard to not be twee when your protagonist has a name like Moon Dawntreader whose true love is called Sparks. (Dawntreader… Skywalker… geddit?) They are of course the Gerda and Kai of the story pitted against the Snow Queen, Arienrhod of the Winter tribe and current ruler of the water planet Tiamat. Tiamat is a relatively primitive world, kept purposefully that way by the Hegemony due to its unique resource: melange. Er, sorry, the Water of Life, which is distilled from the blood of the mers, a species of intelligent seal-like animals. Vinge has her eco-feminist concerns to throw in, though unlike say Sheri S Tepper her brand of eco-feminism isn’t as awful.
The Hegemony is led Kharemough, and the ways in which it oppresses Tiamatans are many and insidious: throughout the galaxy there are a class of “sibyls”, people who bear an “infection” that allows them to tap into a galactic network of information. They are priceless repositories of information and are respected throughout the planets, but on Tiamat they are considered mentally unstable, carriers of a deadly disease – a superstition that the Hegemony enforce to keep Tiamatans ignorant and unable to compete with other planets technologically. The Winter tribe rules during the time of contact where travel to/from Tiamat is possible. They are given technology that’s then destroyed when the Hegemony leaves. The world then regresses into a pre-industrial state in which the Summer tribe, goddess-worshipers considered primitive, are ascendant. The Winter clans are of course disdainful of the Summer, and vice versa. This rivalry is encouraged by the Hegemony.
This is actually a really fantastic portrayal of colonialism: fermenting internal strife, elevating one group above the other, restricting access to information and technology to keep them compliant, regulating flow of travel strictly. But it’s made suspect when you consider that the Kharemoughi are brown-skinned folks with a caste system with limited social mobility and specific rules of physical contact, whereas both Summer and Winter tribes are Caucasoids. The Kharemoughi commit honor-suicides. Kharemough, it hasn’t escaped many, bears strong indications and tell-tale marks of having been inspired by India.
You have Indian analogues oppressing a bunch of white people, whose culture is vaguely Celtic: see Arienrhod’s name and the goddess-worship traditions. Celtic culture is from the British Isles. In short, an entire planet of Indian analogues are oppressing an entire planet of Caucasoid Brits using some of the same tactics as those employed by the British Empire in the real world.
Oh Joan D Vinge no. No no no no no.
Beyond that, while Vinge’s prose seemed like hot shit to me as a child, with the benefit of hindsight and experience it reveals itself to be fairly humdrum, but the setting Vinge’s made still has its compelling set-pieces:
The city of Carbuncle sits like a great spiral shell cast up at the edge of the sea, high in the northern latitudes on the coast of Tiamat’s largest island. It breathes restlessly with the deep rhythms of the tide, and its ancient form seems to belong to the ocean shore, as though it had actually been born of the Sea Mother’s womb. It is called the City on Stilts, because it wades on pylons at the sea’s edge; its cavernous underbelly provides a safe harbor for ships, sheltering them from the vagaries of the sea and weather. It is called Starport because it is the center of offworld trade; although the real star port lies inland, and is forbidden ground to the people of Tiamat. It is called Carbuncle because it is either a jewel or a fester, depending on your point of view.
Carbuncle is a fine space-opera city, with all that implies, scum and villainy and drugs, and intrigues at Arienrhod’s court. I’ve found the figure of Arienrhod especially intriguing, but again with the benefit of having read more books and understood more about gender theory, it’s also troubling that she’s presented as more sexually depraved (and more sexual period) than her clone-daughter and heroine Moon: while Moon, thankfully, has had sex with more than just her true love Arienrhod professes to have actively enjoyed watching Moon have sex with Sparks, a voyeur. She knows now love –
She glanced from side to side at her retinue, listening to the defiantly offworld song they sang to honor her and to drown out the crowd. A handful of the masked honor guard were nearly as old as she – although none were quite as well preserved. They had proven their loyalty and their usefulness again and again, and they had always been rewarded, while the less useful and less pliant grew old and were banished to the countryside. They grieved sincerely today, she knew, like all the weeping, wailing Winters — and like all the Winters, grieved mainly for themselves. But that was only human. There was no one among them that she really regretted leaving behind: many whom she had enjoyed and even respected, but none for whom she had ever felt any real personal warmth that hadn’t paled again like infatuation over the long reaches of time. There was only one whom she really loved — and she was not leaving him behind.
– and what she loves, she intends to take with her into death: at the close of the 150-years winter she, as the queen, is to be sacrificed to the sea, and her consort Starbuck with her. It’s vindictive: she’s shown again and again to be at some level flawed, not kind enough, not human enough, not good enough compared to Moon and that’s why she has to die. She’s not depicted entirely without sympathy. Her plans to resist the Hegemony and keep some tech to her world are commendable and portrayed as a good thing, but she exists to be Moon’s foil and vice versa. When push finally does come to shove, it’s Arienrhod (who’s more sexual, more ruthless) who must lose not only her plans and her throne, but also her life. Sparks is spared; the man in Starbuck’s costume is a different one.
“So you really love him that much.” Herne’s voice rasped. “So much that you want him in your grave with you?” Black laughter. “But not enough to let him live on without you … or with your other self instead: greedy to the end. I traded places with him, Arienrhod, because he doesn’t love you enough to die for you— and I do.” He pressed the hand he held to his forehead. “Arienrhod … you belong with me, we’re two of a kind. Not with that weakling; he was never enough of a man to appreciate you.”
She buried her hands beneath her cloak as he let her go. “If I had a knife, Herne, I’d kill you myself!” I’d strangle you with my bare hands —
“You see what I mean?” He laughed again. “Who else but me would want to spend forever like this? You tried to kill me once already, you bitch, and I wish you’d finished the job. But you didn’t, and now I’m going to get my wish, and my revenge too. I’ll have you forever now, all to myself; and if you spend forever hating me for it, all the better. But like you said, love, ‘forever is a long time.’”
Yikes. They do make nice, but it’s in the sense of “see? They’re both horrible people who deserve each other” when… no, they really aren’t: Arienrhod is trying to break the vicious cycle of oppression that keeps her people pre-industrial and exploited, whereas Herne is just a murderous asshole.
But she doesn’t go to death completely unvindicated; when Moon unmasks as the Summer Queen she knows that she’s had her way, in the end. Her plan to replace herself with her clone has succeeded, if not in quite the way she wanted. The relationship Moon has with her genetic original is complicated, and lasts well beyond Arienrhod’s death into the sequel The Summer Queen where Moon has to learn to rule, to deal with offworlders, to fend off the Hegemony.
There are a lot of women in this novel: Moon, Fate Ravenglass, Jerusha Palathion, Arienrhod, all with their roles to play, interacting and interconnecting in different and complex ways – including, in Arienrhod’s case, using patriarchy’s tools against each other. It rejects entirely the Exceptional Woman model, where only Princess Leia is worthy enough a woman to be uplifted from her gender and held up as the solitary useful woman; it follows the model of Gerda giving her life to rescuing Kai while allowing her – Moon – to keep other goals, other plans, other wants and purposes (indeed it is her ambition to be a sibyl that separates her from Sparks in the first place), even taking another lover, a Kharemoughi policeman named BZ Gundhalinu. It’s a very readable feminist space opera, passionate if not necessarily imaginative and burdened by a peculiar ecological concern, and focuses all it has on many different women (albeit all straight, yes, it has to be said: we get a number of bisexual men in The Summer Queen). The race issue aside – and it’s a huge aside – the book holds up fairly well for something I loved as a child. That it’s out of print and has been so for a few years is telling, and not because SFF can’t stand awful handling of race – or Song of Kali wouldn’t have been reprinted and The Wind-Up Girl would have resulted in Bacigalupi being assassinated in his sleep. SFF adores its grimdark and boys’ own adventures, its terribly written tripe, far more than it prioritizes a feminist fuck-you to Star Wars.
This review originally appeared on Requires Only That You Hate.