As has been previously established, I am very fond of Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen. I was delighted to hear that Tor Books is bringing it back into print, after a lapse of fifteen years1. Granted, it is being republished without the wonderful original Leo and Diane Dillon cover,
but this Michael Whelan kid Tor tapped to provide the new cover
seems like he has potential.
What better way to celebrate the re-release of a book I like than with a shiny new review!
Alas, unaware that The Snow Queen was going to be re-released this year, I reviewed the novel in question last year.
So what you’re actually going to get today is a review of one of the two sequels, 1991’s The Summer Queen, plus! extra! bonus! exhortations to buy both The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen.
The Hegemony has temporarily retreated from Tiamat, forced to abandon the only source of the Water of Life, the elixir which reverses aging. Tiamat’s twin suns are again nearing the black hole around which they orbit and the hyperspace route to Tiamat is unstable and unsafe. The Hegemony (the miniscule successor to a fallen galactic Empire) is forced to leave Tiamat to its own devices for the next century. Time enough for Tiamat’s Summer Queen, Moon Dawntreader, to encourage the two cultures of her world to modernize. If she succeeds, Tiamat will no longer be defenseless in the face of superior technology.
Or at least that was Moon’s plan. She’d have gotten away with it too, if not for that interfering cop, BZ Gundhalinu.
BZ is a hardworking, dutiful man, and his duties are familial as well as professional. When his two idiot brothers got themselves into trouble, he raced to rescue them. In the course of his adventures he was infected with the Sybil virus, giving him access to a mysterious computer network left behind by the fallen Empire; to him, this is a curse as much as it is a gift. He also stumbled over a rare treasure: a lake made of the smartmatter the ancients used to build star-drives2. For the last thousand years, the Hegemony has been limited to traveling between black holes; now BZ may have given them access to all star systems3.
As conventional Hegemonic starflight required a significant amount of sub-light travel at relativistic speeds; the worlds of the Hegemony were by necessity still years apart. Kharemough could maintain only a loose rule over the other worlds in the Hegemony. They had to settle for diplomatic and economic domination. The imperial FTL star drives allow efficient communication, policing, and direct rule. BZ has (unintentionally) given his fellow Kharemoughians the option of military conquest.
Tiamat, sole source of practical immortality, is at the top of Kharemough’s to-conquer list. It can no longer expect a hundred-year reprieve from Hegemonic rule. The respite has lasted only a few years, not enough time to modernize. There is little the Summer Queen and her subjects can do to stop the off-worlders from putting Tiamat under the boot once again. (Though, to be honest, many of the Tiamatians did quite well under the Hegemony and are happy to see it return.)
Few realize that the Hegemonic reconquista threatens the Sybil network, the little-understood relic on which much of civilization relies. There is an unsuspected connection between the Sybils and Tiamat; it is no coincidence that the reliability of the Sybil network slowly declined whenever the Hegemony was in charge of Tiamat. With the Hegemony back in charge, the Sybil system may collapse entirely, with catastrophic consequences for the whole Hegemony.
Unless Moon, BZ and their collection of unlikely allies can somehow save the day.
I own a 1991 first edition hardcover edition of The Summer Queen. As I could tell from the thickness of the book that it had to be at least six hundred pages, I prudently allocated an appropriate amount of time in which to read it. When I opened the book, I discovered that the font had been selected to minimize the page count, without any consideration for aging eyes. Upon investigation, I discovered that other, more reader-friendly, paper editions of the book have run to over one thousand pages.
This is not because it is a bloated book. Unlike some I could name. The book is so long because, as with The Snow Queen, several characters get entire books-worth of plot. The publisher compensated with tiny print, to reduce printing costs. Thank goodness for ebooks, with resizable fonts! Shame I was not reading one.
I had the strong impression that some parts of this book were written to address various criticisms of the first novel. Critics had wondered why the Imperials had seen fit to create the Mers, the intelligent beings from whose blood the Water of Life is derived. The answer is, of course, that the purpose to which the Hegemony puts Tiamat is not the one the Imperials intended. An advanced culture can make long-range plans, but that won’t prevent their barbaric descendants from turning reactor waste into shiny jewelry, or, as in this case, undermining vital infrastructure out of ignorance.
(Why the Hegemony insists on killing Mers to get their blood is never really addressed.)
While I cannot blame the Old Imperials from failing to foresee just how backward and destructive future barbarians might be, I do feel that the Sybil network is based on the clunky computer technology of the time when it was written, an age when despite the rise of the personal computer, Big Metal still dominated the public imagination. The Sybil network is essentially a bunch of telepathic dumb terminals connected to a few highly centralized servers. I suspect that if Vinge had invented the Sybil network in the mid-1990s instead of the 1980s, it would have been decentralized and a lot less vulnerable to inadvertent sabotage.
Many readers — well, me, mainly — felt that Moon had ended up with the wrong man at the end of the first book. Pouty man-child Sparks was less a reward for her enterprise and bravery and more a punishment. Of course, the OTHER alternative was emo cop BZ. I cannot say that I liked him much better; he was generally to be found languishing on his fainting couch after one or another of his horrific misadventures. But at least he wasn’t the same kind of abusive jerk as Sparks. Unfortunately, because the whole point of The Snow Queen was Moon saving Sparks, Vinge didn’t leave herself a lot of room for Moon to sit back and realize that Sparks is kind of a dick. Not in The Snow Queen, anyway; that is what The Summer Queen was for.
The Summer Queen doesn’t hold quite the same fond spot in my heart as does The Snow Queen. Partly it is because sequels are at a disadvantage when it comes to matching the original. Partly it is because Vinge uses a couple of tropes —specifically Women in Refrigerators and Bury Your Bisexuals—with which I have issues. And I have to wonder what, if any, thought process led the Source to accept his final drink, offered to him as it was by someone who had a really good reason to hate the Source.
“Not as good as The Snow Queen” is still pretty good. People must have agreed with me because The Summer Queen was nominated for a Hugo and came in fourth in the appropriate Locus poll. Judge for yourself: it is available in both trade paperback and ebook from Tor.
1: The Snow Queen falling out of print wasn’t exactly Tor’s fault; the previous edition was from Warner (and the SFBC). But it does seem a little odd that Tor didn’t find a way to acquire the rights a little earlier than they did, given that Tor does publish two of the other three books in the series (and that they put out an edition of the fourth, which is currently very out of print.). And at the time, Joan D. Vinge’s editor at Tor was fairly senior, although he has since moved on to explore other possibilities.
2: I can tell from the presence of smartmatter that this book was written AFTER the publication of Drexler’s Engines of Creation. Drexler’s book was very influential book within SF — if not in the actual nanotechnology field, as many of Drexler’s ideas were far from practical.
3: All of which was also explained in the novel World’s End but it, as far as I can tell, has been out of print since the 1990s. If Tor would like a fourth Snow Queen book to reprint, I would like to suggest they consider the only one currently out of print, the one that is the bridge between The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen. But you don’t have to have read World’s End to understand what is going on in The Summer Queen.
I feel like this is going to come up in comments if I don’t explain it somewhere: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen form something like a trilogy, though they are all readable as standalones. Which was the standard in that Golden Age of SF, before the advent of bloated series composed of book fragments. The fourth book set in this world, Tangled Up in Blue, is a prequel. A prequel I own and have never read.