Christopher Priest

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000

[With The Snow Queen we] are in the presence … of a successor to [Frank Herbert's] Dune and [Ursula Le Guin's] The Left Hand of Darkness.

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However, comparisons are odious…. Because perhaps it ought to be said … that The Snow Queen is the quintessence of a certain kind of science fiction, a journey as far into the heartlands of the genre as it is possible to go without starting to come back. The publishers call this "worldcraft," and it is a form of novel that more and more sf writers are essaying these days: "worldcraft" is the depiction of an entire planet or world, described politically, culturally, geographically, sociologically, scientifically and sometimes cartographically…. We glimpse this world through visits to highlife and lowlife, in long journeys across the world's surface or away from it into space, through witnessing the power struggles and conniving of the characters, by fearing for innocents at risk, by seeing the final triumph of a certain kind of moral rectitude, by thrilling to hints and clues to darker powers and supernormal talents, and in ogling the spectacular scenery that unfolds before the reader's eye in cascades of descriptive prose. Whatever, you can be assured that there is a lot of this sort of thing in The Snow Queen: 536 pages in all, competently handled.

Yes, the book is competent but not inspired. (pp. 51-2)

It is … reasonably well told, because it is planned and narrated with unassuming craft, but it is also moderately badly written. It is by no means a poor book, but it is an ordinary one, an overlong one.

At fault is Vinge's vocabulary, the choices she made in three crucial areas. In words, in people and in idiom. (p. 52)

Consider her use of the English language. In spite of the fact that The Snow Queen occasionally reads like an Anne McCaffrey novel with long words, Vinge seems to prefer the plainest, least evocative words. There is no merit in linguistic exotica for its own sake, but after a few hundred pages the reader starts hungering for apparitions that are not "strange," for hatred that is not "ill-concealed," for dreamers who are not "headstrong," and so on. I searched in vain for the odd or appealing word (not counting sf nonce-words), for the newly turned phrase, the surprising simile. Caution is the hallmark of Vinge's prose, to the detriment of her images.

Then there is the vocabulary of her characters' responses. Again, Vinge is scrupulously tasteful in her approach to character, but in her anxiety not to go wrong, she underplays her hand. In a novel as long as this there is plenty of time for character development, and part of the pleasure of a lengthy read is in watching the people grow … but (1) the book is too long anyway, (2) the sloth of the characters' development is part of the reason the book is so long, and (3) the plot actually moves much faster than our recognition of the characters. It is often difficult to remember who is who; particularly, her characters cannot exist without constantly looking at each other or touching each other. Fingers tremble, hands briefly touch, arms are gripped, eyes avert themselves; once noticed, this kind of thing can be extremely distracting. The vocabulary she selects from is limited. And when not body-languaging to each other the characters are given to flashing italicized thoughts at the reader, in the tedious tradition of the Dune books. This is a stylistic mannerism not often found outside science fiction; it is passed along from one generation of writer to the next, as if it were actually useful and not intrusive. Page 277: "And now? Yes … now!" Who on earth thinks like that? I'm sure Vinge herself doesn't. It's stuff and nonsense, and merely adds more words to passages that are already overlong. On page 27 a character called Starbuck looks in a mirror and helpfully asks himself, "Who is Starbuck?", which is good timing as it leads the author into a long account of who Starbuck is. The author has picked up lazy habits from other science fiction writers, and she is much the worse for it.

But it is in the vocabulary of her chosen idiom that Vinge is, surprisingly, weakest. No one can write this sort of novel without running into a major creative difficulty. In a described world of a remote future, or of a remote part of the universe, the author will be imaginatively isolated from the very forces which made him or her into a writer: language, nation, culture, art, myth, slang, scenery, history, folklore, etc. This is a problem that can sometimes be solved by simply ignoring it (eg. in the Star Wars movies), but Vinge is an intelligent and conscientious writer and has I think appreciated the difficulty. The people of another world, when described as a coherent part of that world, would possess such an intangible underlay of assumptions, recognitions and cultural shorthand that any attempt at capturing it must be doomed. (And never mind the insuperable problem of having to write the book in English.) The twin traps for the author are banality and incomprehensibility, and the most demanding imaginative task inherent in writing this kind of novel is finding a safe line between them. In some ways the very size, and importance, of this problem might make the "worldcraft" type of novel congenitally unwritable, at least by serious novelists. Yet, Le Guin has almost pulled it off a couple of times, which underlines the degree of the challenge. Vinge has made an honorable attempt, but she is too often banal in her choice of metaphors, too often given to placing long introspective plot catch-ups in her characters' minds.

I recognized in the The Snow Queen a sincere attempt to write a good story, and I was only sorry I could not enjoy it more. (pp. 52-4)

Christopher Priest, in a review of "The Snow Queen," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 60, No. 5, May, 1981, pp. 50-4.

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