The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

Joan D. Vinge’s 536-page science fiction novel has a rather complicated plot, so I’m going to use/trim the synopsis on Wikipedia (click link to read full synopsis). Based on the fairy-tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen takes place on a mostly oceanic planet called Tiamat, whose suns orbit a black hole, which facilitates a type of interstellar wormhole travel and connects Tiamat to the rest of the civilized galaxy (the “Hegemony”, the remnants of a fallen Galactic Empire). 

The residents of Tiamat are split into two clans: “Winters,” who advocate technological progress and trade with offworlders, and “Summers,” who depend on their folk traditions and rigid social distinctions to survive on this marginal planet. Every 150 years, the sun’s orbit around a black hole dramatically impacts the planetary ecology. To keep the uneasy peace, the government switches between Winter rule and Summer rule. Interstellar travel between Tiamat and the Hegemony is only possible during the 150 years of Winter rule, and a single woman rules the entire planet: a “Snow Queen” in Winter, a “Summer Queen” in Summer.

The Hegemony’s interest in Tiamat has to do with the “mers,” sentient sea-dwelling creatures whose blood provides the “water of life,” a virus that halts the aging process. Mers are hunted as frequently as possible during the Winter years, to the brink of extinction. The “water of life” allows a single Snow Queen to reign for the entire 150-year season, and it is with the Snow Queen, Arienrhod, that the story begins. She has secretly implanted several Summer women with embryonic clones of herself, in the hopes of extending her rule past her ritual execution at the end of Winter. *end of Wikipedia synopsis*

I admit that some of the world building confused me, and it was only after reading the Wikipedia page that I realized the full extent of Vinge’s universe. Thanks to seeing the movie Intersteller, I readily accepted that two months on one planet equals five years on another — this is science that goes above my head, but the movie helped me somewhat grasp how it works. But how offworlders travel through the black hole was unclear to me. Since offworlders only go to Tiamat during the Winter rule, I wonder if it was a big party planet for 150 years at a time, and then they collectively “pass out,” so to speak, and have to recover from a metaphorical hangover for another 150 years.

What seems more like a fantasy novel is clearly science fiction the more you read on. What the Summers chalk up to magic or faith reveals itself as viruses and computers. I really loved that, especially after one Summer named Moon, the only clone of Arienrhod to survive, learns the truth about herself and her planet, she continues to make decisions based on what she was taught and maintains a balance between her upbringing and her new knowledge.

All of the characters felt natural to me, and I enjoyed the way Vinge paired people up, making their personalities play off of each other. Moon had her childhood friend, Sparks. Officer Jerusha had her partner, Gundhalinu. The con artist Tor had her apathetic robot, Pollux. Arienrhod has a lover who leads the hunt for the mers, and though the person changes based on her feelings, he is always dubbed Starbuck. These pairings made each character stronger, giving them someone with whom I could compare and contrast, and having a team always made the two more memorable.

While The Snow Queen doesn’t say something obvious about women, the feminism is naturally there, normalizing female and male characters doing the same things. Women are leaders, lovers, mothers, creative, adaptable, pilots, police commanders, queens. They craft plots and survive and save just as much as they are saved. It was pleasing to be immersed in a world where readers only occasionally bump up against sexism, such as Jerusha’s awareness that as police commander, her officers don’t like that she’s a woman, but most of the problems of the police service exist not because she’s a woman, but because the officers are hired by the Hegemony and sent to Tiamat to keep things under control. They’re all offworlders — outsiders — who aren’t respected by anyone, and Arienrhod makes their jobs as challenging as possible.

My highest recommendation for The Snow Queen is that I keep thinking about it, even though I’ve moved on to a new book. There are actually three more novels in the series, a shorter one that bridges the time between The Snow Queen and the much longer novel The Summer Queen. A fourth book takes readers back to events happening concurrently in The Snow Queen. Clearly, readers love Vinge’s work enough for her to revisit the universe she created, and I’m considering joining those fans come August when I’m done with my summer bingo challenge, which is plotted so tightly to increase my chances of finishing all 25 squares there’s no room for anything else!

22 comments

    • I think I got lost on what was literally happening. My main misunderstanding was what is exactly is the Hegemony vs. Tiamat. It’s like the Hegemony is an entire galaxy or empire, and they want this one planet that isn’t in their galaxy (I think?) because it has mers. Does that sound right to you? I think what threw me off is that Tiamat doesn’t seem to have other planets NEAR it. Does that mean it’s in its own universe and everything else is on the other side of the black hole?

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      • It’s been a long time since I read The Snow Queen so I don’t remember the details of the science in it. Based on my own understanding of the physics of spacetime and Relativity, though, given that Tiamat is near a black hole, it doesn’t experience time at the same rate as the rest of the galaxy. A black hole’s gravity is so powerful that it warps the spacetime continuum around it– this slows down time the closer you get to it. This would isolate Tiamat simply because time is moving faster for the rest of the galaxy, and Tiamat’s time is moving more slowly. Time is relative. It doesn’t flow at the same rate in all parts of space.

        As for Tiamat being in another universe, I don’t think so (though I could be wrong, I haven’t read it in a long time). While there is a hypothesis that black holes allow for travel to another universe, that’s only a hypothesis, and I think it’s more likely that Vinge placed Tiamat in a far-flung region of a galaxy, not another universe. If Vinge’s galaxy is, like our own Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, then the Hegemony might rule over the core worlds, where the density of stars and planets and things is much higher, and Tiamat would exist towards the edge of the spiral, where the density of stars is much lower, and there is far more empty space between them.

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        • Ah, I like this explanation! I’m hoping I understand more of how the universe works in this series when I read the other three books. I definitely pictured Tiamat as the party planet far away from civilized society.

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  1. I know I would struggle with this. Partly because I find scientific concepts hard to grasp but also because somehow I just cannot connect with re-imagined worlds. It might be that I just havent read enough of those kinds of books though

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    • I think movies can help. The capital city where everyone has a good time reminded me a bit of the capital in the Hunger Games movies. I also got a bit of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy vibe with the robot, and a Waterworld (a film with Kevin Costner) feel from the Summer lands. I pull from the visuals of movies to help me construct the land.

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  2. This sounds extremely up my street! Once I’m done with my 20 books of summer reading, I might well pick it up. I also love the trashy 80s covers – I know that more sober-looking covers help science fiction to be taken more seriously as a genre, but they also help it to seem a lot less fun.

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    • Oh, yeah! This is definitely you, Lou. And beware: there are four books in the series! You really can read just The Snow Queen and be satisfied with the ending. I couldn’t call it a cliffhanger or anything, but then if you DO want to know more, boom — three more books.

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  3. One of the problems with black holes is that they are not holes at all but the opposite. They are in fact huge amounts of matter compacted into a tiny volume. Still, lost of SF writers posit worm-holes in space to achieve faster than light travel, which is of course impossible but makes for a good story. I like that the fantasy turned out to be science after all, bit like real life really.

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    • I also liked that the people who believed in gods and then learned the science behind their faith still used the scientific knowledge AND followed their faith. It reminds me of a panel discussion I went to that had three speakers discussing evolution: a scientist who rejects all faith-based claims, a religious person who rejected all evidence of evolution, and a third person who believed in evolution but felt that it was happening due to the divine will of a deity. This book had characters like that third person on the panel.

      Where did you learn about black holes? I feel like science is one of those topics that take you from 0 to 60 really fast in public education, so it’s hard to understand the basics, which support understanding of the complicated.

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  4. Oh wow, this sounds like a great read! I haven’t read a whole lot of science fiction, but it’s a genre I want to read more of. This sounds like it’ll be a great addition to my TBR.

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    • Be careful! There are three more books after that one! You don’t have to read them all — The Snow Queen leaves off on a satisfactory and hopeful note — but I kind of missed the characters for a while before deciding that I should read just a bit more.

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