Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Ice Owl - Carolyn Ives Gilman

The Ice Owl, a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman's, has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards this year. The Nebula has already been awarded to Kij Johnson's The Man Who Bridged the Mist, but since Gilman is still in the race for the Hugo, publisher Phoenix Pick included an e-copy in their monthly newsletter. The novella was originally in the November/December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and now Phoenix Pick offers the it as an e-book and in paperback. I always think it is nice to see novellas in print. It is a hard length to get right but the genre has produced some real gems in this shot format. The Ice Owl is set in the same universe as Gilman's earlier novella Arkfall (2008). These stories can be read independently, which is a good thing as I have never read anything by Gilman before.

Thorn is a teenager living in a future where near instantaneous communication is possible but travel is still limited to the speed of light. She and her mother are Wasters. Outcasts in most societies they are part of and often living in their own ghettos, these people are usually seen as trouble, rebels, heretics or rebels. Thorn is a teenager but has already lived parts of her life on nine different planets, making her a 145 years old in sequential time when the story starts. The planet she is living on at that time, is unstable. Riots are common, revolution is in the air. When Thorn's school burns down, she is forced to seek her education elsewhere. That is how she meets Soren Pregaldin, a refugee who will teach her more than he ever intended.

The story contains a lot of interesting science fictional ideas. The situation with information outpacing actual travellers reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish universe for instance, where the ansible links the the various planets but actually going to any of them takes years. Every time Thorn moves, she leaves behind the people she knew with the realization that even if she was to go back, they would have aged far more that she has. It is not only people she leaves behind either. Whole political systems and cultures can change in the time it takes for her to travel between the stars. Wasters are used to this, it is another element of what cuts them loose from mainstream society on many of the planets they are found on. For Thorn, the constant moving is becoming a burden, she is looking to lay down roots somewhere.

The planet most of the story is set on is tidally locked, only a small strip of land is inhabitable, a land in perpetual twilight. The planet has no breathable atmosphere and the city Thorn lives in is domed. In her introduction, Gilman mentioned she meant to create a culture that fitted the harsh conditions on the planet. It turned into a strict, religious society, part of which despises the Wasters' loose morals. There is an uneasy parallel with religious fascism and the attraction of such religion on young people in this story. Thorn feels this attraction, as an act of rebellion she even dons the veil proscribed to women. It makes her feel anonymous but also gives her a sense of belonging that under different circumstances could easily have drawn her in. Scary to think how easily that can happen really.

The real conflict in the novel is the relationship between Thorn and her mother though. Thorn realizes that her mother is a woman who has made a mess of her life more than once and she isn't very impressed with it. Gilman capturers the anger. disappointment and attempts at rebellion of Thorn very well I think. Thorn is quite rash in a way and very harsh in her judgement. Something that leads her to equally rash actions as the story progresses. You can't help but feel for either party really. Thorn's mother is not perfect but, even seen through the eyes of her daughter, you can tell she cares and is trying in her own way.

I have only read one of the other Hugo nominees in this category, Ken Liu's The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, which I think is a more challenging story in a way. It no doubt faces stiff competition but can see why The Ice Owl made the shortlist. It is a very well crafted novella. Gilman makes the most out of the science fictional concepts used in the story. She sketches what is essentially a very recognizable situation but the unusual circumstances raise the stakes considerably. I am definitely going to have to check out Arkfall one of these days.

Book Details
Title: The Ice Owl
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Phoenix Pick
Pages: 51
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61242-111-7
First published: 2011

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