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At the Seventh Level, Suzette Haden Elgin

July 1, 2014

seventhlevelAt the Seventh Level, Suzette Haden Elgin (1972)
Review by Joachim Boaz

At the Seventh Level is part of a loose sequence of novels that feature Trigalactic Intelligence Service agent Coyote Jones and his voyages to various worlds. Although this sequence ostensibly has the trappings of SF space opera, Suzette Haden Elgin subverts the genre conventions so that the premise functions as a polemical feminist text with satirical underpinnings. At the Seventh Level is an important instalment in a long line of “women as slaves trapped in vast repressive patriarchy propped up by appeals to tradition and brute force” type novels which, some might argue, culminated in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It is important to note that there were many novels on similar themes before Atwood’s acknowledged masterpiece hit the bookstands… But many of the women SF voices from the 1970s (and earlier) have been forgotten.

That said, Elgin’s vision is neither as literary as Atwood’s vision nor as structurally inventive and emotionally devastating as Suzy Mckee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974). The linguistic insights and feminist ideology can be convincing but the characterization, narrative, and world-building is often frustratingly vague and almost lackadaisically delivered. Moments of brilliance are overshadowed by humdrum narrative and descriptive tedium. Likewise, Elgin’s tendency to portray the repressive Abbans in a distinctly “Orientalist” culture is problematic.

The novel itself is a fix-up of sorts containing her first published work, the novelette ‘For the Sake of Grace’ (1969) as the Prelude, combined with original material for the rest of the work. The final portion, which acts as an Epilogue, ‘Modulation in All Things’ was published separately from the novel in various later collections after 1975. The sections are not woven together narratively but rather are thematically linked.

The novel operates on a simple, by effective conceit: despite the fact that the planet of Abba was inhabited long before Earth and despite the rhetoric of the most civilized civilization in the entire Galaxy espoused, they treat women worse than animals (animals are not systematically raped). It is only recently “since the Abban conversion to the religion of the Holy Light” that the Abbans even believe that women have souls (p 48).

The previously published Prologue ‘For the Sake of Grace’, is the strongest portion of the novel. The plot follows Khadilh ban-harihn, a functionary on the planet Abba, who returns from his work on Earth due to a family crisis. He is alerted to the crisis despite his distance from his home planet via a device, a “state-being-control”ṕ 9) that monitors the mental state of his wife. The crisis itself involves the conduct of his wife and his daughter, Jacinth. For Jacinth, barely twelve, desires to enter the only profession open to women, Poetry. For the Abbans, the study of poetry is the study of religion.

Khadilh’s family is highly renowned – five of his sons were accepted into the Major of Poetry. In Elgin’s vision, the study of poetry is a religious calling and those who study poetry the most honored members of society. The exact way in which Abban poetry and religion intersect is never developed at length. But, one can assume that the refined and articulate way of organizing through that poetry requires is equated with a purity of mind and a pursuit of the highest power. Likewise more in line with Elgin’s polemical purposes, traditionalist poetry perfectly encapsulates the entrenched ideologies of an “institution” of religion. In Abban society there are strict rules for verse – and thus, strict rules for expression. Poets of the higher levels are required to communicate only in verse.

While away, Khadilh’s eldest son took over the running of the family. And because of Khadilh’s wife’s perceived “misbehaviour” he restricts her to quarters – instead of calling the powerful “Women’s Discipline Unit” that administers heavy drugs to erase all “rebellious” instincts” (p 14). The extent of patriarchal control of women is further exemplified by brief asides related as if they were normal actions: “He remembered very well the behavior of his wife at her last impregnation, for it had required four agents from the Unit to subdue her and fasten her to their marriage bed” (p 21).

For men who apply but are not accepted to the Major they are simply relegated to another profession. For women (of which there have only been three female poets), those who fail are placed in isolation (they are drugged to unconsciousness when their rooms need to be cleaned). Khadilh knows the effects of this treatment for his sister has gone insane locked in his own house. The only way to escape a drugged existence at the mercy of the Women’s Discipline Unit and the sweeping powers of your husband and sons is via religion, albeit a cloistered and controlled existence as well. And of course, the horrific punishment that results from failure prevents most women from pursuing it.

Khadilh even prepares the isolation chamber when Jacinth is away undergoing her testing… But when she returns her minders reveal that she has been accepted at the seventh, the highest, level!

Unfortunately, Jacinth is not the focus of the narrative nor was the more ruminative and ideological plot thread of the previous section the main thrust of the novel. This might be a result of an unfortunate corner Elgin has written herself into – Jacinth can only speak in verse! The brief interlude ‘The Roll of Iambs and the Clang of Spondees’ where a father and son watch a war between the poet Jacinth and a male challenger to her position hints at the difficulties, but also the rewards. The “war” is fantastic – there is no spectacle of fighting, but there is a spectacle of pain as the poet’s “armies” are subjected the pain induced by the War Computer when one of the poet’s verse battles trumps the other.

The main plot, about half of the novel, is completely uninteresting. Coyote Jones, a particularly unintelligent and non-agent like agent of the enlightened and egalitarian Galactic Federation, is assigned to uncover the mysterious poisoning of the poet Jacinth. The Abbans, despite inhuman treatment of women, are important members of the Federation due to their immense wealth and thus heavy taxes. As long as they admit that women have souls, the Federation believes that change will eventually come however long that takes and however many lives are ruined in the process. The actual mystery is straightforward, the answer all to obvious and belabored.

The final portion, ‘Modulation in All Things’ returns to the promise of the first two by focusing on Jacinth and her travails (although, in a rather hokey fashion). Despite the continued sexual chauvinisms shown towards women, the government is forced to consult with Jacinth – due to her immense control of language – when a problem of great import arises regarding the provision of Abban colonies and unusual threatening aliens called “The Serpent People” (p 132). Jacinth saves the day but the government gives her no reward, “she is female, Citizen” (p 141).

Both Suzette Haden Elgin’s formulation of the Abbans and the Galactic Federation serve as a forceful critique of our society. The Abbans, those who support the patriarchy and “what has always been”, proclaim how enlightened they are yet forcefully instil traditionalist views that result in the abuse and subjection of women. And the so-called egalitarian outsiders who do little – besides perhaps lust after The Other and indulge in some enlightened rhetoric – to liberate the downtrodden. All the “tangential” portions of the novel are successful to various degrees – the ideologies effectively illustrated by the societies. However, the main plot concerning Coyote Jones is all to hastily constructed and insubstantial.

Despite the work’s substantial faults, it is still recommended for fans of feminist SF.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

June 26, 2014

beggarsBeggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1991)
Review by Shannon Turlington

“A man’s worth to society and to himself doesn’t rest on what he thinks other people should do or be or feel, but on himself. On what he can actually do, and do well. People trade what they do well, and everyone benefits. The basic tool of civilization is the contract. Contracts are voluntary and mutually beneficial. As opposed to coercion, which is wrong.”

This review has spoilers and political content. You have been warned.

In the near future, Leisha is one of the first generation of children genetically engineered not to need sleep, and finds herself hated and feared because of the advantages that gives her.

I first read this novel long ago, and I just reread the novella it was based on to refresh my memory, so this review will focus on the novella, which is the opening section of the longer novel. I have seen this book on many libertarian book lists, but it is my opinion that it considers but ultimately refutes libertarian ideals, at least those ideals that we often associate with Ayn Rand.

Like most of the Sleepers, Leisha subscribes to a philosophy popularized by Kenzo Yagai, who also invented the cheap energy source that is transforming the world. In that philosophy, a person’s greatest dignity comes from being able to do what they do well, freely and without coercion, and to trade that skill with others. This is symbolized by the contract. If a person is not allowed to achieve or must operate under coercion, then that robs them of their spiritual dignity.

However, there is the problem of the so-called beggars in Spain, who have nothing to give and want what you have – and may be willing to do violence to get it. They cannot live on their own merits, and they aren’t willing to abide by the rules of civilization. What does the world owe them? The libertarians, or Yagaiists, would argue, the world owes them nothing. Leisha feels there is something wrong with this, but it takes her a while to realize what.

The Sleepless are superior in nearly every way to the Sleepers, and that is why they come to be hated and feared. They cannot engage with the rest of the world in equal trade because they are not born equal. They come to the conclusion that their only recourse is to withdraw from society into an isolated refuge called Sanctuary. Again, Leisha does not think this is the right move.

Finally, as she and her twin sister Alice (who is not a Sleepless) rescue a Sleepless child from an abusive home – and Alice basically saves everybody, much to Leisha’s surprise – she realizes the truth. This is where the refutation happens. Trade is not linear. It is more like a web. A “beggar in Spain” is not fated to permanently be a beggar; they may have something of value to give that only becomes apparent later, like Alice. Human society is an ecology, so you give what you can when you can, not knowing whether you will receive something in return now or later, or even if the person you benefit will go on to benefit someone else. However, by giving when it is needed, and not expecting something in return immediately, the whole ecology benefits–including the so-called elite.

This is where we get stuck when we consider libertarianism in the political arena today. There is often the attitude of “what’s in it for me?” The benefit may not be immediately apparent, but there is a benefit to us all. We are not individuals free-floating out there, tethered to no one, reliant only on ourselves. We are part of an ecology, and all of us are necessary parts of that ecology. Even the beggars.

To Kenzo Yagai she said, Trade isn’t always linear. You missed that. If Stewart gives me something, and I give Stella something, and ten years from now Stella is a different person because of that and gives something to someone else as yet unknown – it’s an ecology. An ecology of trade, yes, each niche needed, even if they’re not contractually bound. Does a horse need a fish? Yes.

To Tony she said, Yes, there are beggars in Spain who trade nothing, give nothing, do nothing. But there are more than beggars in Spain. Withdraw from the beggars, you withdraw from the whole damn country. And you withdraw from the possibility of the ecology of help.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

June 24, 2014

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by M Fenn

For some reason, I haven’t read much CJ Cherryh. In fact, before starting Downbelow Station, I can only remember reading one other of hers, and I don’t even remember what it was. It’s been a while.

Thanks to this Hugo-winning book, I’ll be amending that.

Downbelow Station is the first novel (not including the prequels) of Cherryh’s Company Wars series and takes part in her Union-Alliance universe. Published in 1981, it’s a complicated story, setting up a universe where a giant corporation (Earth Company) has become wealthy exploring the stars, building space stations around uninhabitable planets, all except for Pell’s World, a planet inhabited by the Hisa (called Downers by the humans who inhabit Pell Station, which orbits the planet).

When the novel begins, war has been raging between the Company and the Union, a group of colonists who have chosen to declare independence from Earth and the Company. The Union augments its military strength with clones. The Company has a fleet of warships commanded by Conrad Mazian. There is also a loose confederation of Merchanter ships involved in all this. Pell tries to maintain its neutrality and do business with all three groups: the Company, the Union, and the Merchanters. A crisis point starts the narrative of the novel, with one of the Company warships (led by Signy Mallory) unloading hundreds of refugees from another space station that’s been attacked by Union forces, causing the disruption of the people living on Pell.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that, but if I give you the whole synopsis, you’ll be reading for hours before even getting to my opinion of all that plot. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of political intrigue amongst all the groups and within them, except for the Hisa, who act more as observers than anything else. Or so it would seem.

I really enjoyed Downbelow Station. It took a while to get into as there is a lot of world-building/info-dumping in the first chapter or so, all of which is necessary to give the reader any idea of where they are. The book is a slow read, as well, because Cherryh’s prose is occasionally plodding and there’s just so much going on.

But I think the story makes up for those problems, and it eventually becomes an exciting read. Cherryh does a fine job establishing her universe and the conflicts therein. She also succeeds when working on the smaller scale of Pell Station and Downbelow (as the stationers call Pell’s World), translating the bigger conflicts to a more personal level, with stationers fighting for control of Pell against Union and the Mazianni (the Earth warships) alike. Her characters are decently drawn and she made me care about them.

The Hisa definitely fall into the “noble savage” trope of so much fiction. They’re sentient primate-like folks, assumed to be childlike by the humans that deal with them, but then surprisingly deep when they need to be. While reading, I went back and forth in liking them and not. Ended up settling into the liking them box, mainly because of Satin (Sky-sees-her) and her journey up to Pell to meet “the Dreamer” and see her planet’s sun, something the Hisa on-planet can’t do, because their skies are always overcast.

Another thing I liked about the book was that both men and women were in positions of authority without any sexist weirdness. I loved Elene Quen, a former Merchanter married to Damon Konstantin, one of the leaders of Pell. She finds herself back in space aboard another Merchanter ship (hers was destroyed by the Union) and ends up doing significant work to bring about peace talks. This announcement of hers made me bust out crying, because I’m just a dork that way.

This is Quen of Estelle. We’re coming in.

Signy Mallory, the commander of the warship Norway, is also incredibly bad-ass and I would love to see Sigourney Weaver play her, if a movie was ever made of Downbelow Station. It would be a fun film, for a lot of reasons. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier than it is Wide.

The Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold

June 19, 2014

Mountains of MourningThe Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village… only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.

The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosgian universe. It’s a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles’s investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It’s a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior’s Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst clichés of the “high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do” trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning is a fine novella, but it’s not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior’s Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Doomsday Morning, CL Moore

June 17, 2014

powers_doomsday-morningDoomsday Morning, CL Moore (1957)
Review by Joachim Boaz

CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning – she’s best known for her revolutionary 1930s works including ‘Shambleau’ (1934) and the Jirel of Joiry sequence – is perhaps her most ruminative and traditional SF novel (she tended to write more fantastical SF and fantasy). Unfortunately, she quit writing around the time of the death of her husband and frequent collaborator Henry Kuttner (they often published under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). And her second husband forbid her to write altogether…

Moore creates a finely wrought dystopic vision where an oppressive future government utilizes communication networks to spread its tentacles across the United States. Against this backdrop intriguing characters come to life. Her descriptions of the political backdrop remain minimalistic which is surprising for SF of the 1950s which often resorts to lengthy descriptive lectures. Instead, the true extent of the government’s influence on everyone’s lives is only slowly uncovered via our main character’s experiences. The first person narrative is perfectly deployed to slowly immerse us in the world. Doomsday Morning is not populated by your normal heroes, and Moore is careful to point out that not all rebels are heroic.

Comus (derived from COMmunications US) rules America but details about how exactly it functions and how it was created are kept at a minimum. Clearly a reference to Communism (Moore is writing in the post-Mccarthyism era), Comus is controlled by the dictator Raleigh who is slowly dying. Vague references are interspersed throughout that allude to a devastating Five Days’ War that resulted in Raleigh creating Comus. Comus maintains power by an adept use of the media – propagandistic plays, movies transformed into plays, control of the actual communication networks. Also, the use of “pyscho-polling” and automated police Prowlers keep the state aware of the moods and seditious inclinations of their populace. A large percentage of the workforce that keeps everyone fed and happy are indentured Croppers. They sign lengthy contracts and receive food, alcohol, housing, and transportation between worksites all of which is deducted from their pay. However, by the time their contracts are up they are deeply in debt and have to sign new contracts.

Howard Rohan, the main character, is a onetime actor and theater director who led a successful theater troop. However after the death of his wife Miranda, who acted his plays and movie adaptations of his plays, Rohan fell on hard times and joined the Croppers. A wonderful sequence opens the novel – a drunk and depressed Rohan gazing across the plane where he sees a movie screen with a scene of his wife and himself:

“I watched the young Rohan of four years ago come up behind his wife and rest his hands on her waist, one on each side, like a belt. She laid her head back on his shoulder. It was like watching two gods make love, beautiful, gigantic, more vivid than life, and a long way off in space and time.” (p 8)

Soon Rohan is summoned by Ted Nye, who rules Comus from behind the scenes, with a proposition. Rohan is to restart his career and head to California which has separated from Comus and perform a play. The play itself seems innocent and even non-propagandistic. The troop he selects, The Swann Players are second rate and there’s a Comus spy in in the mix. As Rohan slowly emerges from his self-induced haze of despair and alcoholism he seems to be guided by a series of cryptic messages (how exactly he received them is one of the main mysteries) about what is actually happening in California. Rohan’s self-transformation is generally believable. Also, Rohan’s egotism matches the type of character he is meant to represent. Initially he is solely motivated for selfish reasons, but soon, he is forced to pick a side when Comus’ reason for funding the play is revealed.

What is remarkable about the work is the thematic core that explores the intersection of performance, the powers of media, and state control. The most transfixing portions of the novel describe the play that is almost a character within the narrative. The novel revolves the forces that ordered the play to be performed, the story the play itself relates, the characters within the play, and the actors performing the play’s characters. Beautiful touches abound. For example Comus, the “benevolent” dictatorship that rules America, translates existing plays into movies to control the masses. Also, our hero often cannot distinguish between the reality of Miranda whom Rohan once loved and the ideal constructed via her screen presence – even her name, Miranda, ie, “the one who ought to be gazed at” reflects Rohan’s struggle.

CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning is one of the more intriguing dystopic visions from the 1950s. Highly recommended all fans of classic SF. However, the slow pace and lack of immersive action (until the end) might not satisfy all readers.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

June 12, 2014

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

The first realistic novel in the English language is generally reckoned to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. In the three hundred years since, stories of marooned travellers have proven very popular – so much so the term “Robinsonade” was coined to describe them. When science fiction came into being in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Robinsonade effortlessly colonised the new genre. Alien worlds replaced desert islands, but little else changed – except, of course, the tools at the marooned person’s disposal. Ingenuity, leading either to rescue or a more comfortable existence, was a perfect fit for sf. And for much of the genre’s history, the Robinsonade remained pretty much unchanged, with perhaps one or two exceptions – such as Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday, in which an astronaut marooned on Mars survives with the help of the local fauna.

But if there’s a common shape to Robinsonades, Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… deliberately – perversely, even – subverts it. Because Russ is not interested in ingenuity in the face of adversity, or the perils hardy survivors must overcome, she’s interested in the group dynamics which come into play when a group of people find themselves shipwrecked. Especially a group containing both men and women…

A group of five women and three men crash-land on an uninhabited planet – although it does handily possess a survival shelter which they can use until rescued.  However, it’s not entirely clear when they will be rescued, and the narrator – the novel is framed as an audio diary by one of the marooned women – is doubtful they will ever be found. She is also doubtful they will survive very long, even though the planet seems relatively benign. For a start, they’re not entirely sure they can eat any of the local flora, and they only have supplies for about five weeks…

None of the group have useful skills: there’s a bureaucrat, a couple of academics, a retired couple and their young teen daughter, and a young man and a young woman… But the one thing they all do possess is opinions. And they’re not afraid to share them with the rest of the group. The three men want to start a colony, and so insist the women must consent to become breeding chattel. They even set up a kangaroo court to try and add legitimacy to this decision. The narrator, however, is having none of this. She disagrees with every suggestion because she doesn’t see the point of it. Unsurprisingly, this brings her into conflict with the rest of the group – not just the men, but also a couple of the women who have aligned themselves with the men. She tries running away, but they find her. So she escalates the conflict, kills the others one by one, but eventually succumbs to hunger herself.

There’s nothing in We Who Are About To…, other than the initial set-up, which remotely maps onto a Robinsonade. This is a novel driven by despair, not hope. The narrator is realistic enough to realise the chance of rescue is not just slim but non-existent, which means that any strategies for extending the survivors’ lives are pointless. This is an alien world, its habitability is an illusion… And though the narrator repeatedly points this out, she is ignored. This is clearly because the long-term viability of the group is less important to some of its members than the opportunity to wield power over the others – cf the kangaroo court mentioned earlier – especially the men over the women. And there’s a clear sense of entitlement from the male characters, as if the women’s biology gives the men leave to take control… It works in their favour that the narrator is a person they can easily turn the rest against – not only is she female, she is also outspoken, cynical, has an occupation the others do no understand (she’s a musicologist), proves to possess a useful pharmacopoeia she refuses to share, and is revealed to be a member of a religious group considered irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst.

Russ had a distinctive voice and it’s present in We Who Are About To… just as much as it is in her other works. Framing the novel as an audio-diary makes a strength of that voice. Because this is not a cheerful novel, it is an angry novel – told by someone who has good cause to be angry. We Who Are About To… is an important science fiction novel, but, as seems to be the case for many sf novels of the 1970s and many sf novels by women writers, it does not have half the reputation it deserves. Currently, only the 2010 Wesleyan University Press edition is in print. Let’s have less of Robert Heinlein’s unpublished manuscripts in print, please, and more of these overlooked, perhaps even deliberately forgotten, important sf novels by women back in book shops – with the logo of a major imprint on their spine, of course. In fact, doesn’t We Who Are About To… belong in the SF Masterwork series?

The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge

June 10, 2014

snowqueenThe Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
Review by Shannon Turlington

The Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more – about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, ‘World’s End’ (1984), set in the same universe.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

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