|Submitted by Archren |
(Sep 12, 2006)
The best part of reading “Snow Queen” was realizing how much has changed for women in the world since it won a Hugo in 1981. In terms of economic power, attitudes that were commonplace then are either nonexistent or strongly suppressed now. On the other hand, some of the issues raised regarding sexual and political power are as relevant now as ever.
This is a science fiction story told in three interwoven threads. At first there is the Snow Queen of Tiamat, the woman who controls access to the planet’s resources. Chief among those resources is a chemical found in the blood of one of the native animals that grants immortality if taken regularly. However, interstellar trade on this planet ceases every century and a half or so, due to the position of the planet relative to its wormhole. When this happens the Snow Queen is ritually deposed in favor of a Summer Queen, and all the off-worlders abandon the planet and take all their technology with them, throwing the natives back to a medieval existence. In a bid to survive this Change in some measure, the Snow Queen has herself cloned, and this daughter Moon is raised unsuspecting out on the rural islands. Hers is the main plot thread as she grows, has love and loses it, gains knowledge retrieval abilities that her people believe are magical, goes off-world and returns and eventually fulfills her destiny. Meanwhile an off-world police officer, Jerusha PalaThion, is completely constrained in her ability to do anything helpful for the people of the planet by numerous arcane jurisdictional treaties. When she inadvertently disrupts the Queen’s plans for Moon, the Queen exacts revenge by forcibly promoting her to be Chief of Police over her more experienced, senior male colleagues, forcing her into her dream job, but surrounded by jealous resentment.
Every bit of symbolism in this book centers on the feminine. “Moon” is an obvious one to start, then there’s “The Lady” which is an ocean goddess the rurals worship. Even the planet’s name, “Tiamat,” is the name of a goddess from Sumerian mythology (the name can be parsed as “Mother of all life,” appropriate for a planet producing an immortality serum). The “Change” could be evocative of menopause, and the complex relationship between the Queen and Moon for dominance around the time of Change subtly mimics the complex dance of emotional and power relationships between aging mothers and daughters the world over. Moon’s role of being a retriever of information is titled “Sybil” and she is surrounded and limited by the rules associated with that role. Generally the men who cross the Queen are simply killed or crippled. The police chief however comes in for subtle manipulative crippling that is emblematic of the sort of catty backstabbing that women have at times used as their sharpest weapon.
Now, I’m not saying that everything is perfect for women nowadays, far from it. Through the whole world, most women are still severely limited in their roles and can only wield power in subtle ways, often through men, if at all. However, we in the privileged West have mostly gotten beyond the time when a senior man would evaluate a junior woman professional by saying “You’re not doing too badly for a woman,” as Jerusha hears. It was so incongruous to hear that sort of phrase projected far into the future that I was jolted out of my suspension of disbelief for a moment. Then I realized how unlikely it was that I would ever hear that sort of sentiment expressed openly in my career, and I thanked my lucky stars that I am a member of late Generation X instead of the Pre-War generation or the early Baby Boomers.
Also running through the story are the sexual power games, centering around the character Sparks, Moon’s cousin. Sparks and Moon pledge eternal love, then she abandons him voluntarily, and then involuntarily. The Queen subverts him for her own purposes, giving him power and status and taking his will and his body. There are also pairings between a renegade and Jerusha, Moon and another police officer, the Queen and Spark’s official predecessor, a robot and a Madam, and many others. None of them are simple, especially as they all evolve over the course of the nearly 20 year story arc. And I haven’t even mentioned the strong environmentalist message that is a consequence of the story. The overwhelming feminist tone of the work makes other themes seem like after-thoughts.
This is a very dense book, but the language is beautiful throughout. The dialog can be a bit stilted, but to be honest SF readers are probably used to that. It reads slowly, but that is because there is such a wealth of detail embedded in the text that you feel like you have to be careful not to miss something. My biggest problem is with the plot: a lot of the plot elements are artificially contrived to throw the characters into exactly the places and conflicts that the author needs them in, and some of those contrivances don’t hold up well to scrutiny. However, the plot is almost beside the point, which is really the emotional relationships between this large and diverse cast of characters.