Due to injuries and poor health, Joan D. Vinge has not been prolific as of late; her most recent non-tie-in novel was 2000’s Tangled Up in Blue. In the 1970s her body of work was not so large as some but that series of novellas was enough to establish Vinge as an author of note. 1980’s The Snow Queen was only her second novel, after 1978’s Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt and it earned Vinge the 1981 Hugo for Best Novel. For good reason.
In a distant future the Old Empire rose and fell, taking with it the means for unrestricted faster-than-light travel. In the aftermath, the Hegemony found it’s own solution for faster-than-light travel but since their method requires the use of super-massive black holes, their realm is by necessity far more limited than the Old Empire’s. The Old Empire ruled the galaxy. The Hegemony rules just seven star systems.
The Hegemony came to Tiamat a thousand years ago. Tiamat holds a treasure available nowhere else in the Hegemony, a Water of Life that could extend youth and lifespan for the wealthy few. Tiamat’s human inhabitants were too backward to prevent the Hegemony from establishing a protectorate over the planet and the Hegemony has been very careful to make sure the locals do not gain the means to have a say in who controls Tiamat.
The Hegemony does have one major challenge when it comes retaining control of Tiamat, which is that for astronomical reasons, the Black Gate to Tiamat only works for 150 years out of every 250; the locals could in theory use the century of isolation to built up their industrial base. Since that would be inconvenient for the Hegemony, the Hegemony has gone to considerable lengths to make sure every bit of high tech imported to Tiamat stops working when the Black Gate closes while doing their best to prevent the locals from ever developing high tech on their own. This grand plan is assisted by the fact that the local population is divided into Summer and Winter clans and while both together have enough resources to transform their planet, opposed they keep it in stasis.
Almost 150 years ago, Arienrhod was named the Snow Queen, ostensible ruler of Tiamat during the 150 years of the great cycle when the Winters are ascendent, and the Water of Life has kept her young and vigorous for all that time. Time has done nothing to dull her ambitions but it has removed whatever moral inhibitions she might have had; thank the Hegemony for teaching her that a ruler has to be willing to use any tool that comes to hand.
The end of her 150 year term is fast approaching and with it the end of her life and the fall of civilization on Tiamat. Arienrhod has no desire to see her people reduced to barbarism or to be ritually sacrificed and about a generation before the Black Gate is due to close, she launches an audacious plan involves illegal clones scattered amongst the Summer people. Most of the clones die or are unsuitable to her use but one, Moon, looks like she will do quite nicely.
The key to controlling Moon is Moon’s One True Love Sparks. Sparks is for various reasons trivial for an ancient like Arienrhod to seduce and corrupt; with Sparks as Arienrhod bewitched lover Arienrhod is confident Moon will be compelled to come to Sparks’ rescue. Sadly, chance has no respect for the plans of the great. Moon does set out to redeem her corrupted lover but before she can reach the great city of Carbuncle circumstances cast her through space and time, well out of reach of an ambitious monarch.
Not to worry, though. Losing Moon is a tremendous set back for Arienrhod but she has not remained in power for 150 years by being unable to adapt to changing circumstances. She has another plan that may also serve. It involves a tool we call genocide….
The Snow Queen is over 500 pages long – but first, some context. Back in the Before Times, SF novels were short because the perceived target market – boys – was seen as inherently short of attention span. Long novels were therefore rare and memorable and unlike some more recent examples I could name, the weighty tomes of the Long Long Ago were not meandering, nigh-plotless messes. The Snow Queen is long because it has to to be long, not because the author did not know when to stop typing. I’ve focused on the Moon, Sparks, Arienrhod triangle here because their conflict is the main one but characters like top cop Geia Jerusha PalaThion and her subordinate, fate’s chew toy BZ Gundhalinu, get their own book’s worth of plot.
You might expect from the title that this is a fantasy novel but while Vinge does use the Hans Christian Andersen story for inspiration, her universe is clearly science fiction, not fantasy. All of the seemingly fantastic phenomena have mundane in context explanations; supernatural explanations are due to misinformation, disinformation and simple ignorance. The only reason I can see that someone might claim this isn’t hard SF is because of the dense thickets of romance and as I have explained elsewhere romance is hominid brain chemistry and some cognitive programming, inherent and otherwise; clearly the stuff of hard SF.
Vinge escalates the conflict by revealing the source of the Water of Life – the sea-dwelling mers – are themselves intelligent and I have to admit that while she does address the question of why the Old Empire filled the blood of the mers in particular with a substance people would literally kill to get, it isn’t really clear to me why in the thousand years the Hegemony has controlled Tiamat it never occurred to anyone you get a lot more blood from a regular donor than you do from bleeding a corpse. There’s a good chance that in the early days the Hegemony knew the mers were intelligent – the information was there, if anyone thought to ask the right people – so why nobody thought to try to set up trade with the mers escapes me1.
Speaking of Water of Life, I only just now realized you could also call the fluid everyone wants “uisge beatha”. Hmmm.
A certain other reviewer noticed that perhaps there’s unfortunate subtext to the fact the planet that put the hedge2 into the Hegemony is Kharemough, whose inhabitants seem to be descended from South Asians and whose social system is a caste system as implemented by technocratic engineers while oppressed Tiamat is populated by what appear to be Celts (pasty or not dependent on access to equatorial UV). First off, everyone oppresses Celts given a chance. Secondly a quick audit of the governments we see in the Hegemony include the Snow Queen’s absolute monarchy, a technocratic caste system, and a really misogynist theocracy. I am not quite sure how they select governments on PalaThion’s homeworld but I would not be amazed if it turned out to involve competitive puppy stomping. This isn’t a universe overpopulated with nice societies, which I guess makes the handful of liberalizing activists we see stand out that much more.
The one element that didn’t work for me was Moon’s faith that Sparks is in anyway redeemable. He stomps off to the Big City in a huff because Moon is picked as a Sybil3 and he isn’t. Once in Carbuncle he does not fall so much as leap. At no point does Sparks come off as anything but self-pitying and destructive and it is hard to see how someone with as much talent and insight as Moon fails to see what he really is.
I may end up using “good people working for bad organizations” as the title for this because that’s one of the running themes. So is “bad people with praiseworthy goals”. PalaThion and Gundhalinu are well aware that the reality of their organization falls well short of its supposed ideals, and while Arienrhod does some unforgivable things, her end goal is to free her world from Hegemonistic exploitation. I will say being a villain trying to save a world seems to be a lot more fun than being a good guy stuck with keeping the wheels of empire well greased with bodies but that is not surprising. Villains always seem to have more fun than the people in gray-smudged white hats.
As far as I can tell, The Snow Queen is completely out of print, the most recent edition I can see being almost a decade old. Quite annoying in this age of ebooks and back-lists coming back into print.
- Unless it’s the same reason Gibson never thought about people protecting themselves from Black Ice with obvious counter-measures, which is – IIRC – that he did not think of it.
- Wouldn’t it be cool if the reason the Hegemony is nicknamed the Hedge is a sly reference by Vinge to the Great Hedge of India and thus a reference to the inherently exploitative nature of imperialism? But it probably isn’t.
- Should I explain what those are? Imagine that Google’s User Interface was made of living people.