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The Snow Queen

by Joan D. Vinge


This was the 28th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1981 at the 39th Worldcon, Denvention Two, in Denver, Colorado.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in April 2021.



Oh wow, where to start with this one? I guess I'll start with the facts. The Snow Queen was published in 1980 and won both the Hugo and the Locus for Best Novel in 1981. For the Hugo, it won over four books by major authors which aren't their best known works. Curiously, that list omits Gregory Benford's Timescape, which was the other big winner of the year, as it landed the Nebula and the Campbell, as well as the British Science Fiction Award.

So far, so good. Now, what do I think about it? That's not so easy to answer.

Half of me thinks it's a magnificent achievement, exploring a deeply imagined universe with dreamlike prose and effortless detail. It reminded me of Dune in the way that told its story on such a grand scale. Sure, we're focused on very particular people in a very particular place at a very particular time, primarily a young sibyl named Moon Dawntreader on an ocean planet called Tiamat as it prepares to toggle from a 150 year cycle of connection to the outside and another where the outside can't get in at all and anyone from the outside who is already in has left. However, the story we're really reading is much broader than that, in terms of space and time.

There are things you need to know coming in. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... there was an empire that wandered the stars and did amazing things, but it's long gone and the Hegemony, which has replaced it to a degree, hasn't recovered its level of technology yet, even though it's spread over seven planets and has interstellar travel. It's reliant on a wormhole called the Black Gate to get to Tiamat and that is only open for one of those 150 year cycles because of the way it's affected by the movement of Tiamat's twin suns.

That's a big deal, because Tiamat has a key product, an immortality drug that's harvested from sea creatures called mers, and to maintain their access to it, they're suppressing the planet's technology. When a 150 year cycle ends, a time known as the Change, all the offworlders leave and they destroy whatever advanced tech is left behind. What's more, a cultural shift happens, at their instigation, which moves control of Tiamat out of the realm of the Winter Queen, leader of the Winters, city dwellers who engage with offworlders and buy and use their technology, to that of the Summer Queen, who leads the Summers, much more simple minded and superstitious rural folk.

This is rich worldbuilding and it's enticing. However, the other half of me has a lot of questions, as much of it made no sense to me. I get how astronomical phenomena can prompt changes like this, but this suddenly? I got the impression that it toggles a wormhole in space and makes a city uninhabitable on one particular day that's marked in the calendars 150 years in advance. I get why the Hegemony wants to maintain two notably different clans, but how do they manage it? The Hegemony run police force just isn't that effective. How can they avoid overlap? Cultural tradition doesn't cut it for me, given that we're dealing in 150 year cycles. That's not that many generations. Genocide seems more likely.

My questions extend to the transition of power. I get why the Winter Queen doesn't want to leave office after 150 years, especially as she'll be ritually killed during the Change so the Summer Queen can take over. I didn't grasp the logic of any of the plans she spawned to stay in power. If the Summers can just take over, maybe with superior numbers, why don't they just do that? After all, they kind of worship the mers and the sibyls, who they believe have a divine connection to the Lady, a goddess of the sea. Why do they put up with this ongoing mass slaughter by the Winters and their offworlder buddies? We're back to genocide again.

And, if it's only offworlder tech that's stopping them, then why would the Winters allow all their shiny toys to be destroyed and all their power along with it? Surely, they'd be heavily into stockpiling tech and secreting it away, so they can survive after the change. The police are busy watching the Summers and for any techrunners who might want to help them. They're ignoring the Winters, who can get away with pretty much anything. And we're supposed to buy into them being OK with losing that power?

I constantly struggled with where this went and why it went there. It felt like it should be immersive, the sort of book that's so deep and vivid that you just can't put it down, except that it took me three and a half weeks to read it; I kept putting it down and I kept re-reading the last few pages every time I picked it back up, often not getting much further in. It felt like like a neatly original vision, but it also kept on reminding me of Star Wars and other well-known pop culture standards.

When it was just the Techrunners swooping in feeling rather like the Millennium Falcon but with Chewy as an octopoid alien, I could forgive it, but it didn't stop there. We spent most of our time on Tiamat in a Winter city called Carbuncle and it often had a Mos Eisley feel to me. When we take our only trip off planet, visiting one of the Hegemony worlds called Kharemough, the local speech features a recognisable sentence structure: "Shall we our evening stroll take?" Now I know where Yoda came from. Most overtly, as if Vinge is just giving it away, there's a character called Tor Starhiker. Could that old Empire be the one that Luke and his friends took down and she's about to break out a lightsabre to demonstrate that she can use the force a couple of millennia on?

It isn't just Star Wars but it's mostly Star Wars. Beyond the ties to Hans Christian Andersen, which are very deliberate, the other reminiscent scene was the weird duel between the Winter Queen's current Starbuck (oh yes, Battlestar Galactica just predates this too) and his challenger. It takes place on some sort of vast duct in the Queen's palace that's full of air currents that can be controlled with sound. It's pretty cool but it played to me very much like something out of Flash Gordon. Of course, Starbuck wears a mask and is really kind of like the Queen's chosen bad guy, so I read him as Dirk Benedict playing Darth Vader.

In other words, I'm so far into two minds that I can't even figure out if I like it or not. I certainly felt that I did, even though it never stole me away from the world, but I kept on struggling with it anyway. It kept impressing me but it never really surprised me, at least as far as the characters and their relationships. I knew where all of them would end up and pretty much how they would get there. The only surprises I found were in the much bigger picture, what the sibyls really are and how the Empire, however long gone, is still present in this detail and that. Not all of that surprised me but much of it did and it kept the mystery alive that clearly wouldn't be present in the main thrust of the story.

It's probably telling that my favourite character isn't anyone I've mentioned thus far. Moon is cool, but she's a long way into being messianic and I couldn't buy into some of her blind belief. I didn't her like her lover/cousin, Sparks, but then I'm not supposed to. Sadly I didn't like how I didn't like him. Arienrhod, the Winter Queen, was icily villainous, but pretty transparent at it. My favourite characters were down the tree, like Tor Starhiker and Jerusha PalaThion. The former is a Winter caught up in a number of schemes that she doesn't control, and the latter is an offworlder cop who the Winter Queen forces into becoming Commander of the force, in charge but with the expectation of failure, done as a punishment. I really liked her and felt for her situation.

But did I like this book? I really can't say. I felt like I certainly admire a lot of what it did and I expect it to slide into a category alongside other Hugo winners I've read or re-read during this runthrough, like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Lord of Light and The Dispossessed, which have all stayed with me because of their ideas but which I'm doubtful I'll ever go back to read again for pleasure.


Next month: another book by a female author, the first time that the Hugo was won by two women in direct succession. This one is by C. J. Cherryh, who will be another new author to me. I have a lot more of her books on my shelf than I do by Joan D. Vinge, but I don't believe I've read any of them. Next month, I'll start to fix that by reading Downbelow Station.





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Last update: 15th May, 2021