First Impressions: The Snow Queen

These are my first impressions after reading The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge; 1980) in May 2011. Some spoilers.

9175EUqkY+LThe Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant, and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more — about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, World’s End (1984), set in the same universe.

First Impressions: The Unit

These are my first impressions after reading The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist; 2006) in May 2009. Slight spoilers.

7182963In The Unit, Holmqvist takes us into a dystopian world that is more frightening because it seems so familiar. In this near-future or alternative society (it is never clear which), people who are deemed “dispensable” are confined to the unit, a dreamlike world where they have no wants unmet, while they are efficiently employed as subjects of dangerous experiments and their organs systematically harvested for the benefit of the “needed.” To not have children is the primary means of becoming dispensable, although they seem to be drawn from the ranks of artists, writers, and others who cannot conform to middlebrow society for one reason or another.

Dorritt is such a person. Before coming to the unit, her closest relationship was with her dog. But once there, she experiences for the first time true friendship, love, and acceptance for who she is, which makes her quiet, detached descriptions of the emotional and physical tortures that her friends and, ultimately, she suffers there all the more horrifying.

The power of The Unit is its subtlety. We never really know how a supposedly democratic society instituted this practice of harvesting their fellow citizens, or why the people tolerate it, although we are given hints. As the story progresses, we learn that there are fewer and fewer dispensable people, so that the definition of who is unneeded must be expanded to keep up the supply of organs and test subjects. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the unit seem unaccountably resigned to their fates, but as Dorritt tells her story, we almost come to understand why — which makes it all the more terrifying.

The Unit was originally published in Sweden and was translated into English by Marlaine Delargy.

First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.

First Impressions: The Hunger Games Trilogy

These are my first impressions after reading The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010), by Suzanne Collins. I read these books in 2011-2012. They will be discussed in future essays. Some spoilers.

the-hunger-games-trilogy

In a post-U.S. dictatorship, the ultra-rich Capitol ruthlessly controls the poor and starving citizens of the 12 outlying Districts, forcing each of District to offer up two teen tributes — a boy and a girl — each year for the Hunger Games, a televised contest of survival, as penance for a failed revolution many years ago.

I normally don’t read young adult fiction, and I also avoid very popular books. I tend to be the crank who doesn’t like what everyone else loves. But having heard so many raves about this book, when I spotted The Hunger Games for cheap in the used-books section of my local bookstore, I decided to see what all the fuss is about.

Let me first say that this series makes for a fun, suspenseful read. I think Collins has come up with a brilliant concept, although certainly not an original one. It brings to mind The Running Man, as well as “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story many of us read in grade school. Collins’ brilliance is in casting teens as her survivalists. I’m not claiming that high school is this brutal, but there are similarities, such as the forming of cliques and the feeling of being a hounded outsider.

Collins has also created a very strong heroine in Katniss Everdeen. Katniss has skills, she is resourceful, and she solves her own problems. But she has flaws, too. Let’s face it — she can be a bit thick. For instance, she is unable to read the emotions of others or to let herself be open to them, which causes her to misjudge people in critical ways. Yet this is exactly why we like her. Katniss is authentically 17. She can kick ass, she stands up for what’s right, and she is the unwitting symbol of a brewing revolution, but she still has a lot to learn. This makes Katniss a character we can relate to, cheer for, and worry about. By throwing her into such an extreme situation, Collins ensures that readers won’t be able to put the book down.

The second book of the series, Catching Fire, employs a clever twist to get Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games, which doesn’t feel at all contrived. I actually enjoyed this installment a bit more, I think, because many of the main characters were adults, characters that showed more depth, maturity, and complexity. I also felt the stakes were higher the second time around. And like any good middle book, it ended on one hell of a cliffhanger.

Mockingjay is definitely the darkest of the trilogy, which was already very dark indeed. As Katniss joins the rebellion, she learns that the supposed good guys are not that much different from the regime they’re trying to depose. Don’t expect this book to hold any pat answers or happily-ever-after endings. In that way, it felt very true, if bleak, but I wish that in the end, Katniss had grown more as a result of her experiences. I didn’t get the sense that she changed much at all in this book; rather, she simply grew more depressed and accepting of life’s stark truths.

The final book is just as suspenseful as the previous two, if a little less contained and plotted. There are some intriguing twists, especially one at the climax, that I enjoyed. However, the narration comes across as skimpy and rushed. I get the sense that the author churned this one out. I would have liked her to slow down more, especially at key points in the story, and help us really live in the scene. I also wish we could have gotten inside the characters more and understood how they changed during the course of this story. I have already mentioned Katniss’s lack of growth, but I felt distressingly divorced from Gale, Peeta, and especially Haymitch as well. I think the real problem was that this sequel was so highly anticipated that Collins did not spend as much time crafting it as she should have.

That being said, it was still a satisfying end to the series. Collins maintains her tone and does not merely deliver the expected. I would recommend this final installment in The Hunger Games for older readers.

It’s no mystery why these books are so popular. This series is suspenseful and exciting, but it also charts the growth of its main character very well. Katniss can be dense about love and revolution, but she should be. That is her age. Unlike other recent YA sensations (Twilight springs to mind), I think The Hunger Games deserves its popularity.

First Impressions: Woman on the Edge of Time

These are my first impressions after reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) in February 2015. This book will be discussed in a future essay.

urlAfter bashing her niece’s pimp with a bottle, Connie Ramos is committed to a mental hospital, where she begins telepathically time traveling to a utopian future.

Published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time reminded me quite a lot of two other feminist speculative fiction classics of roughly the same period: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. All three present idealized anarchist utopias, as well as brief depictions of a dystopian counterpart. These utopian communities are presented as environmentally conscious and sustainable, having achieved equality among the sexes and races (albeit in different ways), where the people live communally and in harmony with nature. (Of the three, I liked Le Guin’s the best, but it is the most recently published and the most fully baked, I think.) These are not novels so much as vehicles for ideas about how people could possibly be, and after reading so many of these–including a few minor versions not mentioned–I feel I’ve exhausted this narrow sub-genre. The ideas are attractive, but having moved well past the Age of Aquarius, they seem much more unworkable, relying on an idealized vision of human nature.

Of more interest in Piercy’s novel is the present-day life of Connie Ramos, who is poor, Hispanic, undereducated, mentally ill, and pretty much a victim of all our social institutions. Connie’s plight, having been committed and then subjected to heinous experiments against her will, almost make us cheer her drastic actions after she accepts that she is at war. She is at war against our systems themselves, and the deck is well stacked against her. It’s never very clear if Connie is literally time-traveling or if she is hallucinating as an escape. Given the epilogue with her medical history, I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I don’t know if that is what Piercy intended as the author. There is a lot here to chew on, but I’m not sure Piercy has assembled it into a cohesive story. She seems to be trying to say so much that nothing comes through as powerfully as she might have intended. If she had focused on Connie in the present, and scaled back all the future scenes, using them more as an indicator of Connie’s troubled psyche, this probably would have been a much more effective novel.

First Impressions: The Female Man

These are my first impressions after reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975) in June of 2014. This book will be addressed in a later essay.

51mIMBOx6LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Four women from alternate universes come together in this work of feminist speculative fiction.

Although The Female Man is billed as a “classic of feminist science fiction,” I hesitate to call it science fiction. It’s barely even fiction. More accurately, it is a feminist stream-of-consciousness rant that employs speculative what-ifs to imagine worlds both better and worse than our own, specifically the positions of women in those worlds.

Russ herself is one of the four women, the “female man” who tries and fails to make herself into a man in order to succeed in what is presumably our world, at least our world of the 1970s, when this was published. Russ’s anger is palpable throughout, although she tempers it somewhat with snarky humor. Several times, I found myself wondering whether we hadn’t moved past all this male-female behavior that Russ is criticizing, but truthfully, you only have to read a few Internet comments to see it alive and kicking in the 21st century. In that sense, Russ’s book is still needed and we are not yet free.

Those readers who come to The Female Man expecting a more straightforward narrative are bound to feel stymied by the lack of plot and the jumping around, without explanation, from one world to the next. Besides our own world, there is Jeannine’s world, where the Great Depression has never ended and women are primarily preoccupied with catching husbands, and there is Janet’s utopian world of Whileaway, where there are no men at all. I was feeling fairly adrift in all this until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when we meet Jael, a woman warrior in a world where men and women live separately and spend all their time literally at war with one another. This is probably the most cohesive section of the book, where Jael explains more or less what’s going on and the plot, such as it is.

Forget it, this book is not concerned with plot. It’s concerned with women, with what we endure and how things can possibly be different. Unfortunately, Russ does not seem able to imagine a world where men and women can live together with women not being subject to oppression. I hope she’s wrong about that.

First Impressions: Grass

These are my first impressions after reading Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989) in March 2010.

Grass-sheri-tepperIt is a trope in science fiction to have far-future humans colonize alien worlds and then cut ties with Earth. This enables the story to be told on an alien planet but with familiar, human characters. Here, the planet is Grass, which is covered entirely with grass and peopled by two groups of humans: the aristocracy, who live on estancias out in the grass and do little but participate in mysterious, dangerous Hunts; and the working classes, who live in the planet’s only town and spaceport, where they are protected by the swamp forest that surrounds the town. To this world come an ambassador family from Earth, on a secret mission to find the cure to a plague that threatens all of humanity, which sets the plot in motion.

Tepper has built an intriguing, complex, and sinister world in Grass, and a lot of the suspense of the novel is in learning about the planet’s native species and discovering the true nature of the Hunts. But some of the secrets, when revealed, strained my disbelief. All in all, this is an entertaining (if long) story, a worthwhile reading that could probably have used a little more editing and focus.

Grass was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990. In 2002 it was included in the SF Masterworks collection. It is the first novel in the Arbai trilogy.