The Snow Queen, Joan Vinge’s 1981 Hugo-winning novel, is tale of romance and adventure mostly set on the water world of Tiamat. Tiamat exists in an unusual solar arrangement: its sun is close to a black hole and is cut off from the rest of the humanity for 150 years at a time. During that time, the traditionalists “Summers” rule the planet while the “Winters” rule during the 150 years of contact. It’s an intriguing premise for a science fiction tale that is mostly entertaining even though it is bogged down with world building problems and annoying main characters.
The world-building is generally strong in The Snow Queen despite a couple of problems. Vinge creates a society on Tiamat that is fairly different from our own. As mentioned before, Tiamat is divided into two groups of people, “Summers” and “Winters.” The Summers live simple lives further south while the Winters are more modernized and prefer city life. Despite the fact that the two main characters, cousins Moon and Sparks, are Summers, the read does not get much of a look at Summer society. The majority of the story takes place on Carbuncle, the planetary capital, during the end of the regime of the Winter Queen, Arienrhod. Both Summer and Winter society are female-led. Tiamat society is sexually liberated yet still practices slavery and underground alien creature fights. I found it an interesting twist that Sparks, the male cousin, was the one at risk early on in the book of being sold into sex slavery.
Two main problems exist with the Summer/Winter dynamic. First is more of writing the second is a world building problem. I don’t know if it because Vinge might have strong anti-modernization feelings or what but almost every Winter is a terrible person while most of the Summers are innocent and naïve. This is made clearer as Sparks becomes Arienrhod’s right hand man. As he becomes a Winter he becomes a more terrible person. Horrible people as prominent characters are not a bad thing (Arienrhod is an evil woman and she is the most interesting character in the book) but I would have liked more of a balance. The problem with the world building is that I find it hard to believe that Summers could truly take over as cleanly as they do. Summers destroy all the technology when they come to power and the planet goes into a mini-dark ages. Winters would fight back considering they lose both political and economic power. Vinge partially explains this as the rest of human civilization keeps most technology off Tiamat and what they do export is flawed so that Tiamatians (Tiamatese?) cannot learn how to build it themselves. I find it hard to believe more people would not try to break this system (there are a group of smugglers who trying to do this but their work does not born much fruit). Outsiders want to keep Tiamat weak so they can control the trade in Mer’s Blood, a substance only available on Tiamat.
With the Mer’s Blood, Vinge clearly took a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Tiamat is a marginal world (like Arrakis) but possesses a unique substance that makes the place important. Mermaid like creatures called Mers live in Tiamat’s oceans and their blood stops the aging process in humans. The Winters hunt the Mers almost to extinction while they remain in power. The numbers are allowed to replenish during the reign of the Summers. It’s a good idea and Vinge’s explanation of why Mer’s Blood works as it does and the purpose of the Mers is interesting and well executed.
The characters in The Snow Queen are a mixed bag. I found the two main characters, Moon and Sparks, annoying and childish. Their romance also disturbs me a little because they are first cousins. They are also quite young for much of the book which does not help. Sparks reminds me of the clichéd emo characters that exist in many animes and Japanese video games. It’s not the most flattering comparison. Moon’s behavior is a bit too erratic and I generally just did not find her interesting. Arienhrod, the titular Snow Queen, is a much more interesting character. She does a lot of evil things in the novel but all of them as part of a plan to free Tiamat from domination by the rest of human civilization. She wants “Winter” to continue after interstellar travel becomes impossible and for Tiamat to advance in technology. Her methods and plans are brutal and often heartless but I could not help myself from rooting for her.
The book moves along at a brisk pace for the most part and Moon’s trips to other planets were some of the highlights. I appreciate that Vinge took the time to give the minor worlds unique cultures. In fact, I would be interested if more of the book takes place on these other worlds rather than some of the drawn out ending.
The Snow Queen is a solid though not remarkable science fiction book. It is a little bit of a letdown after The Foundations of Paradise. I would still recommend it to other science fiction fans but with a few reservations.
The next blog will be about Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I am excited for this one since it won the year I was born. Also, it is the second time that I have read one of nominees. The first time was 1977 when one of the nominees was Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune. As of next blog, I will not only compare the winner to other Hugo Winners but also to the other nominees if I have already read them.