Joan Vinge, “The Snow Queen” (1980) (narrated by Ellen Archer) – Do people ever call fairy-tale inspired grown-up fiction “fairy-core?” Or perhaps “tale-core?” Either way, this Hugo-award winning novel is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name the basics of which, characteristically, I either forgot or never really knew.
What I can tell you is that on the planet of Tiamat, there are two century-plus-long seasons, winter and summer. During winter, the Winter tribe rule, during summer, the Summer tribe, and they sacrifice each other’s rulers at the end in a big masked ceremony. Winter coincides with the periodic opening of a wormhole to the rest of the galaxy, and the arrival of interstellar travel, which brings some advanced technology and notional rule by the “Hegemony.” Summer comes and they destroy all the technology and so the cycle goes.
The current Snow Queen wants to change all that, and so has a number of clones of herself created in one of her schemes to prolong her rule. One of these clones, named Moon, lives among the idyllic Summers and becomes a sibyll, a sort of galactic hive-mind portal. She’s betrothed to her cousin Sparks, but when he fails to become a sibyll, he runs off to the big city of Carbuncle. After predictable urban-bumpkin misadventures, he catches the eye of the Queen, who sees both a potential new lover and a way to get her clone back.
This is just the setup. A lot goes on- this one of those Hugo-bait overstuffed scifi novels with plenty of bells and whistles and worldbuilding. Vinge rigs the world with a deft hand as Moon, Sparks, the Queen, and some galaxy cops all try to reach their respective ends. There’s immortality juice that comes from some local manatee-like critters who turn out to be more than they seem, galaxy cop bureaucratic back and forth, wind-control duels, space chases, secrets of the sibylls revealed, on and on.
I call it “tale-core” less because of any Andersen inspiration and more because of the feel. Moon and Sparks are star-cross’d lovers, and Moon will do anything to get back to Sparks, even after Sparks takes a pretty major heel turn. Moon isn’t some drip- she survives a lot, and takes on another lover in the meantime, but still, her goal remains the same. There’s a lot about masks, both real ones and the ones we wear in society (man) and the assumption of mythic identities. I think there might have been a fair amount of tale-core going around at the time- it was Star Wars’ time, after all, which is basically a fairy tale in space. It produced an interesting book here, though the ending more sets itself up for the inevitable sequels than anything else. ****