Joan (Carol) D(ennison) Vinge

Start Free Trial

Carl Yoke

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

But she wore the nomad's tunic she had brought back with her from Persiponë's, the only clothing she owned, its gaudy color as alien as she suddenly felt herself, among the people who should have been her own.

These lines from the "footrace" scene in Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen clearly express the psychological alienation of Dawn Moontreader Summer, the novel's heroine. Though she stands in a crowd of people from her own clan, she feels that she is an outsider, that she is somehow divorced from the very culture in which she was raised. This is the fundamental experience of a person alienated, estranged, or disenfranchised. (p. 103)

Moon's portrayal as an alienated being is no accident. She is but one of several such characters in The Snow Queen. Equally estranged are Sparks, Moon's cousin and lover; Jerusha, a highly capable but emotionally tortured police inspector; BZ Gundhalinu, Jerusha's pride-ridden and rigidly structured aide; and Arienrhod, the beautiful but power-crazed Winter Queen. Moreover, these characters reflect a pattern that predominates in Vinge's writing. Most of her major works contain at least one alienated character, usually the protagonist….

To find alienation the major theme of Vinge's writing is no surprise, for as critic Blanche Gelfant has indicated, it "is the inextricable theme of modern American fiction." (p. 105)

While being alienated certainly implies being neurotic, it does not inevitably spell psychological disaster. Some individuals do struggle and fail in their attempts to cope with their cultures. Others succeed…. Inevitably, success is impelled by love, for it is characters who love themselves, another, and the world who do transcend…. The belief that man can transcend his alienation is held by several philosophers and psychologists, who have been termed "utopian existentialists." While accepting that estrangement is a condition of present-day society, they believe that it can be overcome by future sociological and psychological developments.

Among this group, psychologist Erich Fromm, in particular, believes that transcendence is possible. He sees alienation as evolutionary. "Human nature drives toward unity with the 'all,' with nature; but unity on the highest level requires a temporary separation, and consequent loneliness. One goes out in order to return enriched. Separation, though painful, is a progressive step."…

Though there is no evidence that Vinge has consciously based her characters in Fromm's psychology, the fact is that they closely parallel his thinking. They exhibit the qualities of alienated individuals. Then, by virtue of their experiences, they form new value systems and manage to transcend their estrangement. They do this by learning to love, and they learn to love by learning to communicate. In maturing, some of them even develop the potential to change their cultures. (p. 107)

Perhaps the purest and most direct example of a character at odds with the norms of her society, lonely, tense, and frustrated occurs in Amanda Montoya of "Phoenix in the Ashes." Like Moon Shadow she too has been ostracized. She chose love over a marriage arranged by her father, but when the sailor she promised to wait for fails to return, she is forced from her father's home and her dowry is distributed between her two sisters. Now she lives in an adobe cottage on her father's land but far from the main house, and gleans his fields for food. Though he refuses to acknowledge her existence, he has not so completely forgotten her that he would force her to become a beggar or a whore, the only occupations left to a woman of San Pedro who has lost her family sponsorship. In this rigid, male-dominated society, women are regarded as valuable...

(This entire section contains 3797 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

property. From birth they are impressed with the need for obedience and chastity; their role is to serve their husbands and fathers blindly. They weave and cook but do not read.

Amanda's rebellion costs her dearly. Even though other pockets of civilization remain in this postbomb world, San Pedro maintains only limited trading relationships. Because of religious stringency, leaving the society is nearly impossible. So, eight years after her rebellion, Amanda survives at a minimum level. She is bitter, she is lonely, and she finds that "the staid ritual life in San Pedro [is] suffocating her, and her dreams [are] dying." (pp. 110-11)

If Vinge's characters are not at odds with their own societies, they are at odds within the societies they find themselves and are alienated from them. This displacement occurs, for example, to Etaa, the Kotaane priestess of the powerful novelette "Mother and Child." While she never loses faith with her own native Nature cult, Etaa is twice removed from it physically. First, she is kidnapped by Meron, King of Tramaine. Then, she is kidnapped from Tramaine by Wic'owoyake, one of the silicon-based life forms believed to be gods by Meron and his people. (p. 111)

[It] is clear that alienation is a major component of Vinge's characterization. It does produce withdrawal from one's own kind, rebellion against a society's values, loneliness (the affective corollary of alienation), tension, anxiety, frustration, even physical illness, but it is not an irreversible condition like Sören Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death." Rather, it is evolutionary. It is a stage a personality must pass through on its way to transcendence. From this point of view, it parallels Erich Fromm's position and is much like what an adolescent passes through in his search for identity.

For Vinge alienation is the result of the compelling drive of her characters toward the realization of their potentials. Completing their quests for fulfillment brings them into conflict with the values of the societies in which they find themselves because the societies themselves are neurotic and unrealized. Yet, Vinge's characters escape their alienation with both dignity and integrity because they persevere in their attempts to grasp reality, both inside and outside themselves. They continue to strive to understand themselves, to align themselves with nature, and to communicate with all things, especially in emotional terms. Moon realizes this as she tries to make friends with Blodwed's caged pets in The Snow Queen. "She lost track of time or any purpose beyond the need to communicate even to the smallest degree with every creature, and earn for herself the reward of its embryonic trust…." Like Moon, Vinge's other characters also succeed in achieving something like Fromm's "productive orientation characterized by the ability to love and create." For Vinge, communication and love are psychologically opposed to alienation and loneliness.

Because love is the ultimate communication, and communication, in the broadest and deepest sense of the word, is the means for breaking down alienation, Vinge frequently focuses her stories on love relationships. In particular, she brings together an alienated man and an alienated woman and lets them work at communicating. Bound together by their loneliness and prompted by the events of the story that continuously force them together, they eventually break down the barriers between them and achieve a love relationship based upon mutual trust. Their common enemy is often the values of the society in which they find themselves. From the exertion of their mutual struggle, they forge new value systems and come to a more complete realization of their own potentials. Battling to survive at both the physical and psychological levels, they do produce or promise to produce changes in the value system of the society itself.

Such is the case in "Legacy." Mythili and Chaim are both alienated. When he is chosen as media man and she as pilot of Sabu Siamang's rescue mission to Planet Two, a sequence of events forces them not only to communicate with but to trust one another. When Siamang kills Sekka-Olefin, the prospector he is supposed to be rescuing, for the computer software he controls and subsequently tries to cover up the crime, both Mythili and Chaim are forced to recognize the fact that the values of their society are not only undesirable but psychologically unhealthy. Mythili's refusal to cover up the crime forces Siamang to try to kill her. The incident makes Chaim aware of the limits of his own integrity and forces him to make a realistic choice in order to save them both: he convinces Siamang to abandon Mythili on the planet's surface rather than "spacing" her on the way home. He argues that she will either freeze or suffocate if they jam the oxygen valve on her suit. Either way, her death will look like an accident. But Dartagnan knows something that neither Mythili nor the drug-crazed Siamang knows—the air of Planet Two is breathable, at least for a short time. Olefin told him that when Siamang was out of the shelter. Chaim's choice is difficult but realistic. He also knows that Mythili can make it back to Olefin's shelter and fix his landing module, if she does not panic. Under the existing conditions, it is the best possible decision. When they finally land on Mecca, their home asteroid, Dartagnan publicly charges Siamang with the murder, knowing full well that he may also be charged with Mythili's death if she fails to escape. She does escape, however, and he ruins his career as a media man, but he has learned something valuable about himself and his world. So has she. Subsequent situations force greater understanding, eventually permitting them to build new, more healthy value systems and to fall in love. (pp. 115-17)

The Snow Queen presents [a] … more complicated variation on the pattern. It is similar to "Mother and Child" in that it moves cyclically, from innocent love through alienation to mature love, and it involves more than one other alienated individual. As the novel begins, Moon and Sparks are naively happy, but when they both seek acceptance as sibyls and Sparks is rejected, he leaves his warm, southern homeland for Carbuncle, the capital, in the north. As Moon's selection for training overtly marks the beginning of her alienation (she is unaware that the very nature of her birth has already marked her), Sparks's rejection marks his alienation. Instead of being forced together to learn to understand each other, themselves, nature, God, and their people, they are torn apart. Reality is thrust upon them through their experiences and relationships with the outside world. Into the mix, Vinge inserts Arienrhod, the Winter Queen. She is Moon's mother, by cloning, though the two do not know one another, and she is Moon's mirror image: evil, insensitive, power mad, and accomplished in the ways of the world.

As events unfold, Arienrhod permits Starbuck, her right hand and lover, to be ousted by Sparks and then takes him as lover. The relationship is logical. Arienrhod possesses the secret of longevity, so age is not a factor, and as Moon's genetic equivalent, she bears the physical and mental characteristics that attracted Sparks to Moon in the first place. But her power over Sparks is so complete that she corrupts him, and as he becomes more dependent upon her, his alienation deepens.

The relationship among Moon, Sparks, and Arienrhod is broadly defined by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, also entitled "The Snow Queen" and one of the novel's sources. In Andersen's story, Kay, a young boy, is struck in the eye and the heart by slivers from a magic mirror invented by a wicked hobgoblin and then shattered. The mirror's power is to distort all that is beautiful and to turn the heart cold. Kay wanders off to live with the Snow Queen, oblivious to the cares and concerns of Gerda, a young girl who loves him. She is persistent, and she learns what is wrong with him, finds him, and heals him with a kiss whose power is drawn from her innocence.

Moon's psychological journey, however, is not that simple. While Sparks is writhing uncomfortably in the clutches of Arienrhod, she must first solve the problem of her own alienation. Her destiny is not her own; she is manipulated by the Old Empire computer, which places her inevitably into conflict with the values of both the Winters and the Summers. While she is trying to realize her personality, she is also gaining experience that broadens her perception of reality. Though she bears the same genetic program as Arienrhod, environment has shaped her differently.

In the other stories, communication between the alienated female and the alienated male mutually brought them to a better understanding of reality and fostered new value systems that brought love, but in The Snow Queen it is Moon who must force the personality transcendences. Not until she finally locates Sparks and sleeps with him is he even aware that he is under some kind of "spell." Only then, and after his father has acknowledged his parentage, is Sparks's alienation resolved. (pp. 119-20)

While the pattern of an alienated woman forced through a series of experiences with an alienated man expresses Vinge's concern for communication, the enlarged perception of reality that each character acquires also brings a benefit with it. It is that each transcended protagonist finds herself with the ability to change the values of her society or the promise to do so. As the Summer Queen, for example, Moon will integrate the values of the Winter and Summer peoples and through the power of the sibyl computer, will begin to recreate the Old Empire civilization on Tiamat. Where Arienrhod has failed because of her insensitivity and alienation, Moon will succeed because of her ability to love in a psychologically healthy way. (p. 120)

In order to frame the fight her characters must wage against the values of the various societies in which they find themselves, Vinge usually sets her stories in worlds that are either very primitive or have been destroyed by some disaster. This permits her to create societies that have values that are obviously unhealthy and that suffer from Fromm's socially patterned defect. The distopic worlds, where created by technology, also suggest the dangers of human folly.

"Legacy" and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, for example, are set in an asteroid system whose civilizations have been virtually destroyed by a civil war that killed a hundred million people. What remains are fragile societies slowly disintegrating into chaos. Natural resources are scarce…. Cooperation has been replaced by division. It is a society that is psychologically unhealthy and one that easily breeds estrangement. (p. 121)

Vinge's distopic worlds also serve another purpose. They represent and support the winter season in the death and revival of vegetation archetype that she uses as a broad metaphor to symbolize the psychological development of her characters. Simply stated, the winter period, or death phase of vegetation, is equivalent to the alienation of the characters. The revival of vegetation in the spring is equivalent to the personality transcendence of the characters. The distopic worlds are the "waste land" or "wounded land" of the Grail Quest myths. In those myths, the "wounded land" (it is either suffering from drought or infertility, though it may indeed be wounded in other ways) is connected with the illness of the Fisher King, and the task of the hero is to cure both the land and the King. This is not to suggest that Vinge is writing Grail Quest stories. It is simply to point out a device that she uses to emphasize the psychological condition of her characters, who, since they are suffering from alienation and loneliness, are ill and must be cured.

While it occurs in a number of variations, the death and revival of vegetation story occurs in many of the world's mythologies. It is a personification of the fate of most vegetation during the changing seasons. (p. 123)

While the archetype is clearly present in all the stories being considered here, it is most obvious in The Snow Queen. In that novel, Vinge stresses that "the Change" is coming, that time when the Summers will ascend the throne of Tiamat after ritualistically destroying the Winter Queen and her consort. Quite imaginatively, after she is destroyed, the Vegetation Queen returns in the person of Moon, Arienrhod's clone, and with her comes the promise of revived vegetation. In the novel, Moon's presence promises the return of the reproductive energies of Nature as well as the revival of Old Empire culture and technology.

While several other symbols, devices, and motifs support this archetype, among the most important of them is Vinge's use of what Robert Graves has identified in his book of the same name as "The White Goddess." She is a goddess of the moon, most often portrayed as having three aspects: the New Moon, who is the white goddess of birth and growth; the Full Moon, who is the red goddess of love and battle; and the Old Moon, who is the black goddess of divination and death. As such, she goes through a cyclical process each month that results in renewal. It must be remembered, as Graves points out, that this Triple Goddess is the personification of primitive woman—"the creatress and destructress. As the New Moon or Spring, she was girl; as the Full Moon or Summer, she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter, she was hag."

For each aspect of the White Goddess, Graves traces variations through many cultures. Most often, the three aspects are represented by the three mythical goddesses: Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, and Cerridwen. Arianrhod is a Welsh goddess, who in the Romance of Math the Son of Mathonwy gives birth to a divine child. She then transforms into Blodeuwedd, a treacherous love goddess who destroys the divine child and then transforms again into a death goddess, known as the Old-Sow-Who-Eats-Her-Farrow, that is, her litter of pigs. In other words, she feeds on the flesh of the dead child. Not coincidentally, Arienrhod of The Snow Queen feeds symbolically off of Sparks. Like the divine child, Sparks is restored to life. Arianrhod, the Welsh goddess, was an orgiastic goddess whose worship included male sacrifices.

In Celtic legend, the third aspect (the Old Moon of death and divination) is Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's sister, a death goddess who often assumes the form of the raven. Morgan in Irish is "the Morrigan," meaning "Great Queen," and "le Faye" means "the fate." She was not the gentle figure depicted in Morte d'Arthur but rather she was more like "black, screaming hag, Cerridwen." From this analysis, of course, Vinge has constructed Fate Ravenglass, the gentle sibyl of the novel who chooses Moon to be queen. Moreover, she has also adopted and adapted other aspects of the "White Goddess." Arianrhod is loosely transformed into Arienrhod, Blodeuwedd becomes Blodwed, and Moon, who appears in the novel only as a young girl, obviously represents the New Moon, or the birth and regeneration, phase of the goddess. But even though Vinge has adopted their names, she has not necessarily paralleled her characters with the meanings attributed to them by myth. Arienrhod becomes both love goddess and death goddess in the novel, but she portrays love only in its most negative aspects. Blodwed, an illiterate and crude girl who tortures her pets in order to get them to obey her, performs only one important function in the book: she releases Moon in time for her to participate in the footrace that will determine the candidates for Summer Queen. While this is significant, her role hardly qualifies her for the reputation of her treacherous namesake.

There is one other characteristic of the "White Goddess" that is important to the novel. Cerridwen, the Old Moon aspect, is also known as the goddess of "Life-in-Death and Death-in-Life." She is the woman dicing with Death in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. To be under her spell is to be in a "purgatory awaiting resurrection," and as Graves determines, that purgatory is in a "calm silver-circled castle at the back of the North Wind." All of Vinge's alienated characters are figuratively in a purgatory awaiting resurrection, and thus they are in a state of "Death-in-Life." Tarawassie, for example, exists in such a state because of her chitta addiction, and Sparks is literally locked into such a state by the Winter Queen.

By its cyclical nature, its emphasis on growth and rebirth, and its reflection of the "Life-in-Death" state, the "White Goddess" motif clearly supports the death and revival of vegetation archetype.

Another supportive device is the fertility theme. It has obvious connections to the archetype because the death and subsequent revival of vegetation implies infertility and fertility, respectively. Except for "Eyes of Amber," where no particular emphasis is given to it other than the fact that Titan is just entering its spring season, all the stories place a premium on fertility. (pp. 124-26)

In addition to the fertility theme, Vinge also uses a cluster of images suggesting coldness to support the dying and reviving vegetation archetype. Snow is the most prominent image, but also included in the cluster are ice and winter and adjectives like frozen and white, which suggest coldness. As a symbol, the cold cluster signifies the winter season, that season when the Earth is devoid of most vegetation. Psychologically, it signifies that period when the character is alienated and lonely. But, like winter it holds the promise of rebirth, renewal, and regeneration. (p. 127)

While the dying and revivifying vegetation archetype is not as obvious in her other stories, it is clearly present in some form…. It is more easily identified if one remembers that the vegetation archetype is itself a more specific statement of the life principle. It must also be remembered that while the archetype is a major device in Vinge's work, it is merely supportive of a psychological point of view that dominates her stories. Simply stated, all of us must pass through a period of alienation in order to achieve maturity and productivity that can be considered psychologically healthy. We transcend our alienation by communicating fully with one another. Because it is the most fundamental means of communicating, love is the most frequent instigator of this evolution of personality. And because love is achieved, so too is integrity, indentity, independence, pride of self, creativity, productivity, and happiness.

For Vinge then, alienation is a normal developmental process, a position with which many psychologists and psychiatrists agree. David Oken writes, for instance, that turbulence and alienation are essential features of the identity crisis that characterizes alienation and further that "a placid, unruffled adolescence is a danger sign, indicating that the struggle was felt to be so fearsome that it was given up before it could be started." In this opinion, he confirms Erich Fromm's view that alienation is evolutionary. Inevitably, Vinge's major characters suffer this "trial by fire" and pass through their hellish alienation to achieve a rebirth. (pp. 129-30)

Carl Yoke, "From Alienation to Personal Triumph: The Science Fiction of Joan D. Vinge," in The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It, edited by Tom Staicar, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982, pp. 103-30.


Sally Estes


Carolyn Caywood