Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review - The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen
by Joan D. Vinge
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I have to confess that I have not read Hans Christian Anderson's original story "The Snow Queen". Vinge took the framework of Anderson's story, placed some science fiction trappings around it, and this was the result. Unfortunately I am not able to compare it to the original work but Vinge's version was entertaining.

At some point thousands of years in the future there is a planet which is the only place in the known universe where an immortality drug can be made. Unfortunately for the rich and powerful this system's access to the rest of the universe alternates between open and closed every few centuries. When this change occurs the climate of the planet changes and by tradition the barbaric tribes take over. When the gate is open the planet is ruled by the immortal Snow Queen who rules a decadent city of technology.

The current Snow Queen knows her time is short and when the gate closes she'll be sacrificed and replaced with the Summer Queen but she has a plan to continue her line. She creates clone embryos of herself and has them implanted into woman from the barbarian tribes who come into her city of a festival. She then plans on locating the child raising it to be a new version of her, and then will take her life to become the new Summer Queen.

Only one of the clones survive and before she is located this clone is allowed into an order of witches forbidden in the Queen's city. Her childhood friend travels to the city to make his fortune and falls under the Queen's spell to become her right hand man and lover. Naturally things build to a confrontation between everyone.

That is a very abridged summary and the story is even more complicated than that. There's plots, counterplots, manipulative outside forces working to limit an omniscient force, and even a quick trip with some time dilation to throw things off. The Snow Queen is a very busy novel but at the same time I never felt lost reading it. Vinge juggles the many plot threads well and builds a spectacular tapestry from them.

I have one very major problem with this book. Let's say that there is a large group of people who are omniscient. They can answer any question put to them accurately though they find it exhausting to do so. That's any question from "What did I have for dinner 428 days ago?" to "How do I build a spacecraft?" It's common knowledge that they have this ability. So do you:

a) Spy on the neighbors.
b) Using some trial and error as well as writing everything down gain basic knowledge and improve the quality of life for everyone.
c) Use them to gain military intelligence.
d) Call them witches and make them complete outcasts.

Vinge goes with option "d" and the whole book and multiple plot points hinge on this. Despite the fact that these people have been around for thousands of years. Despite the fact that anyone who takes advantage of their omniscience would gain such an advantage over someone who didn't that people trying to repress them would be crushed instantly. It's my least favorite plot element: entire planets worth of people have to be idiots for thousands of years in order for the story to work.

This could have easily sunk the whole book for me but Vinge pulled off a miracle with the characters. The Snow Queen is overstuffed with some very rich, fascinating characters. All of the antagonists are given very human perspectives which make them all fascinating. The only problem that I have with the characters is that the main character is a little too willing to forgive attempted genocide.

Vinge's prose is also vivid and brings the setting to life. The decadent city that the Snow Queen rules is very distinctive and it makes the setting for the majority of the book. You can feel the weight of years and people clinging onto the ruins of the past living there.

So the plot hole gave me a huge headache but the rest of the package for The Snow Queen was exceptionally good. For that reason I'd recommend it; the story is very enjoyable and it left me wanting to know what happened to these characters next.

Quite a few of the books I've gotten for my Hugo winner collection have book plates, the most popular being that Boris Vallejo one that every teenage boy who liked fantasy used for a period in the 80's. My copy of The Snow Queen has the most terrifying of them all:

I've removed the name to protect the guilty but looking up that name I found an alternative musician that fits the right age and location for the used book store that I got the book from. Should this person ever hit it big I have the blackmail material handy.