The Snow Queen – Mysticism and Science

I’m back after a long holiday hiatus with Joan D. Vinge’s 1981 Hugo winner The Snow Queen. I’ve seen this novel compared to Frank Herbert’s Dune a number of times, and being a rather passionate fan of the Dune novels (though I’ve occasionally asked if I could possibly get away with rewriting the sometimes dreadful prose), I was skeptical that Vinge’s universe could live up to Herbert’s; this was, after all, I said snottily to myself and others, the woman who wrote the novelizations for Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeLadyhawke, and Cowboys and Aliens.

I had to eat every snotty thing I had said.

The Plot: The world of Tiamat has been refused official entrance in the Hegemony for quite some time due to its particular social structure: populated by two clans, the Winters and the Summers, the planet undergoes significant shift in power every 150 years, with each clan alternating rule. This shift in power is caused by the dramatic changes in planetary ecology resulting from the changes in the dual suns’ orbit around a black hole, in fact the black hole that allows interplanetary travel to and from Tiamat. What happens is this: for 150 years the Snow Queen and the Winters rule, indulging in technology and trading with offworlders, while the Hegemony maintains contact and a police force on the planet, located in the city of Carbuncle. Then, the planetary changes begin, the Summers flock to Carbuncle because the equitorial areas where they live during Winter become too hot for habitation, a Summer Queen is crowned, the Hegemony leaves the planet, and all technological progress ceases and even regresses, owing to both the Summers’ primitive lifestyle and refusal to engage with technological devices and the fact that when the Hegemony leaves all the devices that they might have left behind cease functioning immediately.

Of course, the offworlders have their own reasons for wanting Tiamat to make no technological progress: the water of life, the blood of the indigenous sea creatures known as mers that, when taken regular, staves off aging and death. If Tiamat gained technological freedom, they would no longer be forced to trade the water of life at such premiums. But the current Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has a plan, which begins with implanting several Summer women attending the Festival held every 20 years in Carbuncle with clones of herself. Only one of these clones, Moon, survives to adolescence, closely bonded with her cousin and lover Sparks. She and Sparks plan to become sibyls, individual highly revered among the Summers who can go into a trance state and answer any question asked of them through the power of their goddess (the Winters fear and kill sibyls).  However, while Moon is accepted as a trainee sibyl, Sparks is turned away and, because of the popular beliefs concerning contamination in sibyls’ bodily fluids, can no longer be Moon’s lover. He leaves his Summer family for Carbuncle, intent on exploring his offworlder heritage (his unknown father left his mother a medal proving his offworld status). Arienrhod quickly scoops up Sparks with the intention of using him to lure Moon to Carbuncle in order to train her as her Summer replacement so that Moon may continue the revolution that Arienrhod has begun. After receiving a message supposedly from Sparks asking her to come to Carbuncle, Moon sets off, but along the way she becomes involved with offworld smugglers who must make a desperate run from Hegemony police. Hence, though it is very much illegal, Moon ends up on the Hegemony capital planet of Kharemough, where she discovers that sibyls exist throughout the Hegemony without the same stigma that is propagated throughout Carbuncle. In fact, the Hegemony encourages fear of sibyls as a means of keeping the people of Tiamat in the dark, since, instead of communing with their goddess, sibyls are actually connecting to a large database of information put in place before the fall of the previous Hegemony so that humanity would not regress entirely. With this new knowledge in hand, Moon returns to Tiamat, only to find that in her absence, Sparks has become Starbuck, the Snow Queen’s consort, lover, and hunter of mers, something abhorred and forbidden by the Summers. As she rescues Sparks and becomes the Summer Queen, Moon also discovers something Arienrhod never suspected: the database of sibyl knowledge is actually stored on Tiamat, below Carbuncle, and the mers are intelligent, genetically engineered creatures designed to protect and maintain the database. Armed with this knowledge, Moon takes her place as Summer Queen as the offworlders leave, hoping to bring about some kind of change in the relationship between the Hegemony and Tiamat in her reign.

I immediately understood why so many people were connecting this novel with Dune: the water of life is the spice, the Tiamatans are the Fremen, the Hegemony is the Galactic Empire, and so on and so forth. But beyond this superficial plot connections, I found that this novel had a very similar combination of mysticism and science, and I was especially delighted to see that even when the unexplainable is explained in detail by science, such as how the sibyls get their knowledge, the ritual of the thing is not diminished. This is not a novel about progressive science vs. primitive mysticism; rather, it is about the power of hybridity, and even Moon who formerly had no interest in technology, who saw it as having nothing to do with her life, comes to understand the importance of her “primitive” Summer culture changing their attitudes and instead putting technology to use, not against the Winters, but against the offworlders.

In fact, I like this book better than Dune in a lot of ways, and I especially enjoyed the feminist aspects: the matriarchal society, the valuing of “intuitive” knowledge in the form of the sibyls, a focus on the way romantic relationships between two people are also indicative of larger politics, and so on and so forth. But more than that, I liked that line between good and evil wasn’t drawn at all. Granted, in Dune we begin rooting for the Atreides against the Harkonnen but quickly realize that when it comes to the Fremen, both are equally bad. However, the Harkonnens are never not evil. The same might be said for the Emperor. In The Snow Queen, we begin by rooting for the Summers against the Winters, but quickly realize that the divide is superficial in the larger picture; even cold and seemingly heartless Arienrhod has developed her plans in order to better the lives of her people, including the Summers. We might then turn our animosity toward Gaia Jerusha PaleThion, a representative of the Hegemonic police force in Carbuncle, but her story is rife with its own problems, especially concerning her difficult career as a female law enforcement officer in a man’s Hegemony. We then look toward the capital planet of Kharemough and its inhabitants but, though they are nice and smug about their place in the grand scheme of things, their lives are also governed by a complicated social system that frequently demands ritualistic suicide and shuns those who are unable to carry through with such. Even the prime minister of the Hegemony admits that he is only a figurehead for attending Festivals and parades and has no real power. In short, the only thing we have left to hate is the system itself, the Hegemony devoid of any representative individual. And perhaps that is one of the things that is so enthralling about this book: you know that someone somewhere has to be benefiting from this system, but you just don’t know who.

In terms of language, Vinge has a fascinating way of representing languages that are not Tiamatan. While Tiamatan is presented as standard English, other languages are written in English but each with its own idiomatic syntax, as though this is what it would be if translated quite literally. For example, the Sandhi language is characterized by Yoda-like syntax:

Elsevier lifted her hands. “Forgive me, KR — I didn’t come politics to argue, or your time of mine to waste. I’ve to you in your apolitical capacity come; and I’ve brought someone who your guidance needs.” (179)

Klostan features a limiting of be verbs and a lack of verb tenses other than the present:

“You hardly touch your meal. And after all the trouble your finest chefs go to to please us. This canawaba rind be excellent.”

“I not eat many twelve-course dinners in my line of work […] I guess I not be up to the challenge.”

I find this technique of depicting other languages fascinating, perhaps because it seems to simple yet I’ve never seen it done before. Furthermore, it illustrates a place for alternative Englishes in the spec-fic cannon, and I’d like to see more works that embrace alternative Englishes as a means of adding depth to language in the genre.

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Woman on the Edge of Time – The Way Things Could Be

As I mentioned in my last post, Mattapoisett is the utopia I want to live in, so I’m excited to move away from writing about Connie’s present and into Luciente’s future. Of course, since I could easily go on and on about Luciente’s future, I’m going to limit myself to a few quick snippets before diving into language and politics.

Sexuality: Sexuality in Mattapoisett is extremely open. Connie sees children as young as six or seven engaging in sexual activities. There don’t seem to be words for “heterosexual” or “homosexual.” It appears that often mems are also “pillow friends,” but pillow friends avoid raising comothering together. In fact, the only sexual taboo beyond rape (which is punished on the first offense with some kind of service decided by the victim or victim’s family and is punished on the second offense with death) is strict monogamy; in this future, people are discouraged from binding to each other in ways that are exclusionary to others.

Class: Mattapoisett is a socialist society; the number of things a person actually owns is quite small. Every one has a personal living space, whether that be a small home of to themselves or a room in a house shared with mems (family members), but they don’t own that living space. If a person dies or moves, someone else who needs a space takes residence. Everyday clothing is owned, but clothing for special occasions and rituals can be rented from the library, as well as pieces of art and rare books. Credits for luxury items are distributed in different ways in different communities, but in Mattapoisett credits are distributed equally and might be traded in for a nice gift for a mem like a bottle of good port or a nice book for yourself.

Reproduction: In Luciente’s future babies are grown in tubes; there are no longer live births. The “comothering” of a child (the concept of “fathering” doesn’t exist) is undertaken by three willing adults, usually mems, though the children really belong to everyone. Two of the comothers, or “coms” pronounced with a long “o” sound, breast feed, with the men taking hormones in order to produce milk. Like Connie, I find this part a bit troubling, the idea that in order for women to achieve equality they must share what identifies them biologically as woman. But, distinctions between genders don’t really mean much at all in this new society anyway, so it’s probably more a sign of my own ideological positioning than anything else.

Race: Luciente’s future is extremely diverse racially, and racial percentages can be carefully controlled due to the test-tube baby-making. More interestingly is that each village in the future has an ethnicity, a “flavor,” that is completely separate from the racial make-up of the inhabitants. Bee explains it like this: “At grancil — grand council — decisions were made forty years back to breed a high proportion of darker-skinned people and to mix the genes well through the population. At the same time, we decided to hold on to separate cultural identities. But we broke the bond between genes and culture, broke it forever. We want there to be no chance of racism again” (96). I really like the way that the intersections of skin-color, cultural practices, and “race” are articulated here.

Art: There is no place for the romantic genius in Mattapoisett; everybody has to pick caterpillars off the bean plants no matter what they’re profession is. Jackrabbit explains it like this: “We think art is production. We think making a painting is as real as growing a peach or making diving equipment. No more real, no less real. It’s useful and good on a different level, but it’s production” (261).


And now onto language… 

The most immediate and far reaching linguistic quality of Luciente’s future is the erasure of gendered pronouns. Early in the novel, Luciente makes some comment to Connie using “you” which Connie takes mild offense to. Luciente explains, “You plural […] a weakness that remains in our language, though we’ve reformed pronouns” (34). It does take some time to get used to Luciente’s pronouns, “person” for the subjective third-person and “per” for the objective and possessive third-person, but after a while it’s easy to think “Person must not do what person cannot do.” This lack of gendered pronouns combined with the lack of gendered codes in dress and naming in Mattapoisett means that determining the gender of individuals is very difficult for Connie, who continues to think in gendered pronouns, and consequently for the reader. Of course, that’s the point, really, that gender is a set of markers that allows us to place individuals in categories.

The other issue of language that comes up is the jargon that has arisen out of this new society. Luciente has mems, some of whom are coms and some of whom are pillow friends. She contacts these people and many others with her kenner. For festivals, she wears a flimsy and sometimes she rides in a floater. Sometimes she attends the grancil. And so on and so forth.

And then there’s the politics…

Political life in Mattapoisett is everyone’s responsibility insofar as positions on the grancil are given by lot, so at any point in time any adult in the community may have to serve as representative of per village. As Connie comments on, people in this new society spend a lot of time in meetings talking, and it’s pretty much everyone, not just those whose job it is to do it. As such, we see two of these meetings, one a township meeting where village representatives congregate to discuss the allotment of resources and whatnot and one a “worming,” in which Bolivar and Luciente try to sort out their differences. In the township meeting, representatives from various villages debate the needs and wants of all the villages while they, as well as the representatives for the animals and the land, also debate the relative damage to the surrounding area. If two villages are debating some kind of resource, say one village wants a piece of land for growing cabbage while a neighboring village wants the land as pasture for sheep, the village that wins the decision in council hosts the losing village in a feast and night of festivities, so as to keep down on hard feelings. So political rhetoric is a contest, but it’s one that doesn’t stray much outside the council room. Of course, there are the decisions that go above the township level, such as the decision about deliberating shaping human genetics for certain traits. In this issue, one point of interest is that Luciente and those mems who agree with her on the issue plan to create a drama to take around and perform in other villages  to try to convince others to their side; this indicates that political rhetoric in Mattapoisett and the surrounding areas is found less in speeches and more in performances: dramas, stories, holis, dances, etc. It’s extremely performative. As such, art as a rhetorical form often comes under scrutiny and is debated as such. When Luciente crits Bolivar and Jackrabbit’s latest holi for suggesting that conflicts between genders played a greater role in the downfall of humanity than conflicts between class did, Sojourner remarks, “Our culture as a whole must speak the whole truth. But every object can’t! That’s the slogan mentality at work, as if there were certain holy words that must always be named” (203).
This crit comes up in the worming that I mentioned earlier, in which Bolivar and Luciente come face to face to discuss the ill feelings between them, centering around certain possessive feelings about Jackrabbit. I find this part interesting considering how emotionally open Luciente’s society seems to be. In her first visit to the cafeteria of Mattapoisett, Connie notes, “Really this could be a dining room in a madhouse, the way people sat naked with their emotions pouring out, but there was a strong energy level here. The pulse of the room was positive but a little overwhelming” (67). Yet some emotions are discouraged as “binding,” such as Luciente’s jealousy of Bolivar. They are kind of forced to be friends, with their mems directing them to spend time together without Jackrabbit to try to become friends. It is much like the way that strict monogamy is discouraged. So we have a society that is emotionally very free, but still limiting in certain areas. However, those negative emotions are dealt with through talking, whether in a worming or with a healer.

And finally a cool thing I found…

As I was doing a little research, I came across this neat little game based on Woman on the Edge of Time called Luciente’s War. Check it out.

Woman on the Edge of Time – The Way Things Are

Marge Piercy’s 1976 feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is, hands down, one of my favorite utopias. It is the utopia where I want to live: a feminist utopia that doesn’t have to get rid of men entirely for equality, a community where learning and “education” is entirely self-directed, where in-knowing is valued, where the ideology of progress is largely limited to what can be good for the land and the people…It’s just beautiful. But, as much as I love it, WET is also incredibly depressing at times, and it’s that anchor in the horribleness in the here and now that makes it so successful as a utopia, I think.

The Plot: Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a poor Mexican-American woman in NYC, has been having strange dreams and hallucinations of a young man named Luciente who claims to be contacting her psychically from the future. Before Connie really knows what’s going on, she has a run-in with her niece’s pimp, hitting him in the face for trying to force her niece to have an abortion by a quack doctor and, due to past violent behavior, winding up back in a mental institution. In the hospital, Connie begins to communicate more with Luciente, who turns out to be a woman rather than a man, and even passes over in Mattapoisett, the utopian community where Luciente lives with her “mems,” those individuals she is close enough with to consider family. As Connie learns more about this possible future where babies are grown in tubes, men breast-feed as well as women, no one goes hungry, and renewing the earth is a prime concern, she is signed up for an experimental procedure by her brother, one intended to “cure” her illness by releasing chemicals into her brain every time she feels a negative emotion. Her implant, however, is removed because her frequent trips to visit Luciente result in her lying for hours in a coma-like state, which worries the doctors. During this time, Connie visits another possible, dystopic future in which humans are kept alive as organ farms for the wealthy elite, women undergo plastic surgery to make themselves into parodies of femininity and live with men only on contract for limited periods of time, and the highest physical state is to become a cyborg. Connie decides that it is time to fight and, after a visit to her brother where she is able to steal a fast-acting and lethal poison, she makes one last visit to Mattapoisett to say goodbye to Luciente before she dumps the poison into the coffee pot of the doctors in charge of the experiments.

Most utopias/dystopias outline in detail the future but do not discuss the present at any length, creating what my colleague Ben and I have been referring to as “the macro-enthymeme of utopia”  in which the unstated premise is the author’s/audience’s own cultural/historical situation. WET doesn’t follow this form, though, spending a great deal of the novel in the present and one that is very marked by race, class, and gender. Since the novel clearly divides itself into conceptions of the present and the possible future, I’ve opted to divide by commentary in the same manner, beginning by looking at the way things are for Connie.

As a rhetor, Connie’s position is limited at best and just plain shitty at worst. This becomes immediately apparent when she is readmitted to the hospital but no one will listen to her because she is “crazy”: “They said reluctance to be hospitalized was a sign of sickness, assuming you were sick, in one of these no win circles” (9). Connie is stuck in a system of welfare and hospitalization that does not offer her any agency or authority on the state of her own body or living situation. She has an unwanted hysterectomy so that medical students can get practice when she is in surgery for a poorly performed abortion. She is routinely monitored by welfare representatives who check her job situation and living arrangements.

Feeling sympathy for Connie made more complicated because this attention is not necessarily unwarranted: Connie admits to being a neglectful and abusive mother. She admits to being an alcoholic and drug-user and not taking care of her daughter. She argues that this is also the result of the system which kills her lover Claud in a prison experiment, and though it is difficult to determine the degree to which Connie has been wronged in issues concerning her daughter, it is easy to see that she is continually being punished for a fluke in her life, albeit a very large and dangerous fluke.

But even before her life was derailed by her abusive second husband and the loss of Claud and her daughter, Connie learned to be distrustful of the system. As Luciente explains how decisions are made in Mattapoisett and the larger township, Connie tells the following story:

Years ago, I was living in Chicago. I got involved that way. Meetings, meetings, meetings! My life was so busy, my head was boiling! I felt such hope. It was after my husband Martin… he got killed. I was young and naive and it was supposed to be a War on Poverty… But it was just the same political machine and us stupid poor people, us… idiots who thought we were running things for a change. We ended up right back where we were. They gave some paying jobs to so-called community leaders. All those meetings. I ended up with nothing but feeling sore and ripped off. (146-7)

So even before she is labeled as “crazy”, Connie suffers from a dearth of political power, though she recognizes that the political machine works to make it look like she may grasp some for however short a period of time. 

The rhetoric of the present judges based on gender as well as class and race; consider repeat-offender and repeat-asylum inmate Sybil. While Connie does not quite buy into Sybil’s assertions of magical power, she does admit that “Sybil was persecuted for being a practicing witch, for telling women how to heal themselves and encouraging them to leave their husbands, for being lean and crazily elegant and five feet ten in her bare long high-arched feet, for having a loud, penetrating voice and a back that would not stoop” (76). Connie frequently comments on how Sybil’s size gets her different treatment from herself, since Connie is short and perceived as being easy to handle compared to Sybil.

Altogether, Connie’s story in the present paints a picture of a political machine (an important word considering the cyborgs of the dystopic future) with many arms for oppressing women, especially women of color. We see staged moments of Bakhtinian carnival where it looks like an inversion in power might happen in Connie’s participation in the War on Poverty. We see the means by which medical rhetoric is used to control Connie’s sexuality and reproduction as well as her freedom to move about, given her strict incarceration in the hospital. We see the degree to which how a woman looks controls what she is able or allowed to do in Sybil, Connie, and Connie’s niece Dolly (who takes speed to stay thin and dyes her hair — all her hair — red to attract johns) but also in the wives of Connie’s brother Luis, who become increasingly Anglo as he becomes more successful, leaving behind as much of his Mexican identity as possible. In all of this, Piercy illustrates the ways in which “women’s issues” are also inherently tied up in issues of race and class as well.