The Snow Queen: Won the Hugo?

Joan D. Vinge The Snow QueenThe Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

The Snow Queen, published in 1980, is Joan Vinge’s science fiction adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. In Vinge’s version, Anderson’s love story takes place on the planet Tiamat which is located near a black hole. Tiamat is a convenient rest stop for interstellar travelers and they often go down to the planet for respite or trade, but Tiamat also has its own special commodity: the Water of Life. This youth-preserving substance is made by killing a marine species found only on Tiamat and is available to rich travelers who are willing to leave their money or their technology behind. The “Winter” clan who governs Tiamat craves the technology that will make their life more comfortable, but the Hegemony, the real rulers of several worlds, keeps Tiamat (and, therefore, the Water of Life) in their control by restricting technological development.

The Snow Queen has been ruling Tiamat for the Winter clan for 150 years, but everything on Tiamat is about to change because the planet’s unusual orbit is nearing the phase where the black hole will become unstable, closing the planet to outside influence. At that time the planet’s relationship to its sun will also change, reverting Tiamat to its “Summer” ecology. As has been the tradition, the Summer clan will choose a Summer Queen who will sacrifice the Winter Queen and her consort and will rule for the next 150 years until the orbit changes again. The Summers are backward, superstitious, and hate technology. They also revere the sea creatures that the Snow Queen has been killing. Thus, the entire culture of Tiamat will be transformed when they are in power. But the Winter Queen is not ready to be sacrificed and she has a plan to keep her clan in power. It involves our protagonists, Moon and Sparks, a pair of teenage cousins and lovers who belong to the Summer clan.

Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1981 and I respect the opinion of several people I know who love it and claim it as one of their favorite science fiction novels. I, however, remain completely mystified. Perhaps if I had read it back in 1980 (except that I was too young) I would have appreciated it. After all, the novel has an ecological focus and its main characters are women — both of those features were unusual for science fiction novels of that era.

Vinge’s main characters may be women but most of them are pathetic. On the surface they seem to be strong, but those in power are either evil (e.g., The Snow Queen), unconfident because they’re women (e.g., Jerusha the police inspector) or are completely derailed by their love of a man (e.g., Moon). Fortunately, there are some admirable secondary female characters.

I had a couple of major issues with The Snow Queen. The first is that I had a hard time believing in Vinge’s world. The black hole, orbit and ecology change is a clever setup, and there were other clever features which I can’t explain without spoiling the plot, but I didn’t really believe in the Summer/Winter dichotomy and that any rulers could ever expect such a governmental and cultural transition to be successful. Along with this, I didn’t believe that the Winters, with 150 years worth of technology to study (and immortality besides) couldn’t figure out how to replicate, or create their own, technology, even if they had to keep it hidden from the Hegemony.

But what I disliked most about The Snow Queen was the protagonists, Moon and Sparks. Biologically they are cousins, they were raised as twin siblings by their grandmother, and they became lovers as children. YUCK. It’s really hard to root for their love affair, upon which the entire foundation of the plot rests — The Snow Queen is, after all, a love story at heart. I could not get past the incest or the sick single-minded blind devotion to each other. In addition, besides the weird relationship, I found both characters hard to like. They were sulky, self-absorbed, and impetuous. Sparks brooded for the entire story. Moon was better, but still did not display enough loveable qualities to explain why everyone thought she was a saint. Yet nearly every character either fell in love with her or announced that she had profoundly changed their life. I didn’t get it and this eventually ruined the story for me.

I listened to Audible Frontiers’ version of The Snow Queen which was read by Ellen Archer. At first her narration is plodding — lacking the right rhythm to effortlessly carry the listener along — but this resolves about 1/3 of the way through. I’m not enamored of Ms. Archer’s Irish accents — they just don’t seem to fit the story — but other listeners may feel differently.

So, while I did not like The Snow Queen, I hesitate to try to steer potential readers away. The book won a Hugo Award and I know people of excellent taste who love it. This is one you’ll have to read and decide for yourself. If you’ve already read it, I’m interested in hearing your opinion.


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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8 comments

  1. I remember I liked Psion very well but this one was “meh” and, as you did, I stumbled on the technological problem.

  2. I didn’t read it at the time (and I was old enough). I think she was trying to address current social themes. It’s interesting how some things are timeless and some quickly becme dated. What I remember, after reading reviews, was the same skeptical response to the 150-year-switch. I saw this book in a used book store about a month ago, reached for it… and changed my mind.

  3. I liked it, but I can easily see not liking it. It was kind of a slog at points and the pacing was a little bumpy. The villains were more interesting than the heroes for sure.

    I have yet to pick up the sequel. I would give it a try but it is nearly twice as long as The Snow Queen and I don’t think I have the energy for it.

  4. There were actually three sequels, with BZ Gundhalinu serving as the main protagonist.

    The sexual attitudes of quite a few books written in the 1970s and early 1980s would not find a sympathetic audience now. The relationship of Moon and Sparks was pretty mild compared to some of the taboo-breaking (often just for its own sake, seemingly) that went on in written works of that period. Now we have daytime talk television and crass celebrity “news” stories to convince us that taboos are broken daily and that sex is just bad taste spelled with fewer letters.

  5. Regarding the awards and nominations The Snow Queen garnered, 1981 was not a strong year for science fiction and fantasy. In other words, something had to win. Likewise, I don’t know if the Hugo is the most consistent of awards. Ursula Le Guin has won, but so too has Harry Potter…

    • This is probably true, and I almost said so in my review, though then I would have been slamming five books instead of one, and since I’d only actually read two of them, I thought that was risky. I’ve read Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg. It was better than The Snow Queen, but not by much…

  6. William Gibson summed up the 1980s (or the sexuality of the 80s) really well in one of his early books when he has an old guy say it was the last moment of the brief period of time when there was reliable birth control, no un-treatable diseases, and you could do anything you wanted. Some people did, and some people wanted to write about it.

  7. I read the Snow Queen and a couple of other Joan D. Vinge novels at the time; this was less readable than the others, and, um, dense. It had what you might call aspirations, which was why I thought it probably won.

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