Hugo Awards: Best Novella (2nd contender)

Next is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “The Ice Owl” from F&SF. It has not been made available online.

Adolescent Thorn lives in a domed city that is located in the twilight region of a planet where one side perpetually faces the sun, and the other is in eternal darkness. She lives with her mother in the Waster enclave of the city — “waster” being the term for immigrants who travel vast interstellar distances. The journeys can take decades, and Thorn and her mother have made many journeys, as her irresponsible mother bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and world to world. Thus:

What do you know about the Gmintan Holocide?” the old man said with withering dismissal.
Thorn smiled triumphantly. “I was there.”
He stopped pretending to read and looked at her with bristly disapproval. “How could you have been there?” he said. “It happened 141 years ago.”
“I’m 145 years old, sequential time,” Thorn said. “I was 37 when I was five, and 98 when I was seven, and 126 when I was twelve.” She enjoyed shocking people with this litany.

Wasters are out of synch with sequential time, and a friend of the same age who is left behind when a traveler leaves on a journey can be a generation older, or more, when the traveler reaches his or her destination. Interstellar travel leaves relationships and lives, as well as worlds, behind.

The city’s corrupt government is being challenged by an opposing movement of religious Incorruptibles, who disapprove of art and music and education as well as governmental corruption. When her school is burned by Incorruptibles, she finds a tutor, Magister Pregaldin, who makes a living as an art dealer. Thorn is engaged by his challenging instruction and dazzled by the beautiful objects that he owns.

Pregaldin shows her a living antique of a sort, a bird stored in a freezer unit, an “ice owl,” native to a planet where winters last a century or more. When the temperature rises, it comes out of hibernation to mate. It may be the last of its kind, he tells her.

This is an engrossing story as Thorn and Pregaldin develop a deepening relationship and the city teeters into revolution and chaos. Thorn senses a mystery about her tutor, and harbors suspicions that he was involved in some way with the Gmintan Holocide, because of his secrecy in some matters and also because he is a Vind, one of the races that was systematically killed by the Gmintans (essentially, Nazis under a different name). Unfortunately, the promising beginning fails.

Suddenly, Magister Pregaldin gives Thorn the precious ice owl. I had a sinking feeling when, a little past the story’s midpoint, I read:

“You’re giving me the ice owl?” Thorn said in astonishment.
“Yes. It is better for you to have it; you are more likely than I to meet someone else with another one.”

Really? I would have thought a young girl who spends more time in pointless travel between worlds than in conscious life, currently living in a politically failing city, tied to a ditzy mother, would be a rather poor bet to care for a near-extinct bird. And her opportunity for meeting another ice owl owner virtually nil. But the author states it is so, and the characters carry on as if something highly unlikely did not just happen; and the reader recognizes the owl for another guise of the redshirt. It will die so that the main character can have an emotional experience.

Gilman even makes it harder to swallow by having Pregaldin state that, if the power goes out, the frozen owl will be fine for three days. After three days, it will begin to thaw. Thorn’s mother unplugs the unit to use her curling iron, and for three days Thorn doesn’t notice… even though the machine is right under the dinner table where they eat. Oh, strix ex machina.

If I sound harsh, it is because of the promise of the story, and my disappointment in its resolution. The great dynamic heart of this story is Thorn and Pregaldin; but alas, Pregaldin simply disappears and there is no resolution of his tragic background and ongoing story. Suddenly it is all about Thorn’s emotional crisis with her mother and her eventual realization that “Maya was not a perfect mother, but neither was Thorn a perfect daughter. They were both just doing their best.” And if we don’t quite get the point yet:

“I hate this,” [Thorn] said, but without conviction. “Why do I have to be responsible for her?”
“That’s what love is all about,” Clarity said.

It is a trifling insight for a story that begins with well-drawn characters and issues, and then goes sentimentally, fatally astray.

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