The Summer Queen by Joan D. Vinge

Several millennia ago, an ancient empire had the most magnificent technology and inventors, including a gay couple who created a network that functions like the internet, except instead of computers, the ability to “compute” is given to those who can withstand a smartmatter virus. After the ancient empire collapsed, society rebuilt itself in a system of eight planets monitored by the Hegemony, and the people who compute still exist. It’s base of operations is the most tech-savvy planet left, which is high tech, but a mere shadow of the ancient empire.

The least “worthy” planet, called Tiamat, has antithetical clans called Summers and Winters who worship a sea goddess. Backwards, ignorant by Hegemony standards, this planet has one asset: sea creatures whose blood grants temporary immortality. For 150 years while a Winter Queen reigns, she encourages off-planet technology, decadence, and the sea creatures are hunted almost into extinction by people from the seven other planets who get there through a black hole.

Then, it’s summer, when those not native to Tiamat leave because the black hole will close and all travel will cease, and a Summer Queen reigns for 150 years while the sea creatures replenish their population. Summer queens encourage prayer, harmony, and fear technology.

Published in 1991, Joan D. Vinge’s third book in the Snow Queen Cycle, The Summer Queen, is riveting, unforgettable, and creative. While things have always followed the same pattern on Tiamat, change has been brewing. The same queen isn’t supposed to reign the full 150 years — they are human — but the last Winter Queen did because she was drinking the blood of the sea creatures. At the end of her reign, she was tossed into the sea to drown, as per tradition. The Summer Queen, a young woman named Moon, is also different. She knows the source of the computer-like network, and she also knows that the sea creatures are sentient beings. These facts mean she isn’t a mindless goddess worshipper. She works to save the creatures, encouraging the people of Tiamat to see the benefits of some technology in their efforts. This is one plot thread.

The biggest change to the planet is a side effect of love. BZ Gundhalinu, the man Moon saved in The Snow Queen and discovered the mystery of Fire Lake in World’s End, figures out how to travel to other planets when the black hole is closed. Tiamat is now open permanently, and the sea creatures are likely to be hunted to extinction — fast.

There are many other plot threads, including watching Moon’s twin children become young adults and how they become similar and different from their parents. Is a new crew of characters led by Reede, strangely one of the brightest scientists alive who knows more about smartmatter than anyone else, despite being about twenty and having a deadly drug dependency. And then there’s the everyday issues with ruling a planet, like listening to complaints and fighting off threats to Moon’s rule.

Joan D. Vinge writes a wonderfully immersive story, full of unforgettable characters (even though there are at least ten individuals who affect the plot like primary characters). Vinge crafts longing and romance and sex scenes in a way that moves the plot forward and adds depth to the world. The science fiction aspects are believable, though unrealistic currently, as most science fiction technologies are, but I was able to follow all of it. Depending on which planet the characters are on, the environment can feel shiny and modern or downright apocalyptic.

At almost 700 pages, The Summer Queen might be a hard sell, but I haven’t cared about a story so much in ages. It’s as if when I’m not reading the book, I’m missing out on an alternate reality that’s important. You may have read my complaints about how long it took me to finish The Summer Queen. I set daily reading goals for myself as a sort of “homework” assignment, and due to the small font and scrunched spacing, I missed my target goals every day, which set me back with other novels and reviews.

Had I more information about the book during my planning, this would not have been an issue. I recommend you get an e-book edition instead of the physical copy so you can adjust the font. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to read the last book in the quartet, Tangled Up in Blue.

4 comments

  1. My preferred medium for these sort of books is audio. But I just searched on Audible and no Joan Vincent and three Summer Queens, all of them not your Summer Queen. SF is such a marvellous way for exploring ideas that reading this review makes me regret how far I have moved away.

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    • Joan Vincent? Her last name is Vinge. I found The Snow Queen on Audible, so that one is available, but I didn’t see the others. As a literary guy who loves science fiction, I think you would very much enjoy this series, Bill.

      What do you mean that you’ve moved so far away? Physically, or in your reading choices?

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