Changing the Map: Screw “Here be Dragons”

It is 1983, and I am thirteen and hunting for dragons, on a winter Boulder, Colorado day with crystalline skies so clear that I know it is below freezing outside. But I brave the elements anyways, for I want dragons, and I have five dollars and some change earned from household chores. I take the RTD bus 204 downtown, and brace against the canyon wind all the way to my first stop, Mile High Comics, which has a wonderful back part filled with used and mysterious paperbacks that smell like adventure and snickerdoodles from the bakery next door.

I have a passion for dragons. Smaug entranced me at the early age of eight, and I have developed a full on crush for fire lizards and empathic dragons. These are more intriguing creatures then even horses. My lust for them has reached only the height a socially awkward, freshly minted teenage girl in the oncoming rush of hormones can achieve.

I must have dragons. It is possible that I MIGHT DIE if I do not find another book with dragons.
I do not find any new dragons. The helpless clerk cannot find me anything I have not read. I am heartbroken.

I check the shelves repeatedly before I buy a book with an intriguing cover, done by the artist who also draws so many of the dragons I adore, plus the cover is of a young girl, and the book is thick, all of which are slightly positives, even if not dragons.

Then I hit Stagecoach Books, a long walk, still against the wind, through the Pearl Street mall, crunching ice in a teenage stomp, past homeless hippies, and I look through the map collection. Every week I come here, searching for a map that says “Here be Dragons,” possibly so I can prove they exist. Or existed, or have the possibility of existing.

I do not find a map. There are no new dragons today.

At my last regular stop, the Trident, I get a hot chocolate and retreat to a corner by the stove and breath in the air of coffee and damp boots.

Then I start to read The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge, and I no longer care about dragons.

Let us face it. I will never stop loving dragons, whether they’re from Middle Earth, Pern, or Westeros. Dragons are staple inhabitants of the speculative fiction map. Like plagues of vampires and werewolves, they appear everywhere.

Bio-engineered seal computer bytes are a totally different creature. When I read The Snow Queen that day (and yes, I did read it in a day — I have a bad habit of snarfing down books), I did not know where to place the planet Tiamat, or the strange space opera of an argument between technology and nature, a culture clash equal to the 1980’s of the dystopia/utopia of Boulder. I did not know I was reading the start of environmental speculative fiction, a path that would lead me from the bleak views of Mad Max to Al Gore, landing most recently with a giant flying bear named “Mord” in Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne.

Environmental speculative fiction has a tendency towards the dystopian, towards the bleak wreckage of the earth as a wasteland. It’s all around us in popular culture — Mad Max, The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games.

Not Tiamat and the universe of the Hegemony. In the classic, which won the Hugo in 1981 (two years before I found it) the planet Tiamat is on the cusp of a culture change — the off-worlder Hegemony are about to be locked out by a hundred-fifty year event isolating the planet from the galactic culture and returning control to the tree-hugging (or rather “mother-loving”) Summer natives. Unfortunately, Tiamat is also the sole source of a life-extending serum, harvested from the mers, a seal like species endemic to the planet. Against this a young girl who does not know she’s the clone of the Winter Snow Queen falls in love with a boy who is both the right one and the absolute worst.

There’s more. A lot more — it is 500 pages and a space opera. Its one of those books that almost defies description. Many compare it to the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, but other than the love story, the parallel is loose at best.

And it is space opera with a universe at least as big as the Empire. It is a fantasy too. But above all else, it is the start of a genre. Tiamat, and the mers, change the map for speculative fiction. Dragons can move over — there are other creatures out there on the fringes after this.

Environmental speculative fiction, as I’ve mentioned, focuses largely on the dystopian results — barren landscapes shattered by nuclear events, legions of lurching corpses created by biological disasters. The Snow Queen is a glorious exception. For although the universe of the technology-loving off-planet Winters is decaying, Tiamat is alive and bright and warm while everything outside is not. Except that the mers, who produce the life-extending serum, are sentient, and the most important parts of the galactic spanning communication system. And are being hunted to extinction. If they cease to exist, so will all humanity’s knowledge and communication.

Environmental or ecological speculative fiction is a sub-genre generally focused on the argument between humans and technology, usually to the extreme. The whole thing started off of course with the Mother herself, Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. But The Snow Queen was the first ecological book to win the Hugo, and although the Hugo’s are not the end-all-be-all, they do provide a cultural touchstone. The difference between ecological fiction and well, the Borg and other cyborgs/zombie-like creatures and monsters, is the focus on place. The settings are generally fantastically lush, even in apocalypse mode, and one finds oneself rooting for nature, not science, or at least for a healthy balance between technology and nature, between the created and what created them.

It was 1983 and I had just learned what disasters humans could bring upon themselves. How hunting a species to extinction could change the universe. How destroying part of an ecological system can topple a universe.

Alas, poor Tiamat and the mers never have quite made it into pop culture. World’s End and The Summer Queen complete the cycle, but after that, the books fade away, much like the galactic civilization of the Hegemony. There are no movie adaptations, no television series and it’s only by looking at the wave of environmental speculative fiction that follows that one realizes that The Snow Queen paved a path.

I don’t know if this book influenced Al Gore (although not without the realm of possibility) or James Cameron, or even Jeff VanderMeer, but it did influence the events that led to them and their work, both fictional and disturbingly real. The world of Robin Hobb’s Elderlings and her dragons are also direct descendants.

Tiamat and the mers linger on, in the lush world of Avatar (say what you like about the movie, but the world, oh wow, the worldbuilding) and the strange future of our own Earth in Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Borne. The mers, I argue, have led to a flying giant sentient psychopathic bear (just go read Borne) and led me into a life-long quest for rare species and far limits, past the worlds that can be located on maps.

I did not, on that day in 1983, find dragons. I have never regretted that.

Screw “Here be Dragons.”

 

If you’re interested in reading these books, might I kindly suggest a trek to your local bookstore?

8 Comments

  • sharonpatry August 8, 2017 at 7:25 am

    Awesome!! And who says snarfing down books is a bad habit??

    Reply
    • Shara White August 8, 2017 at 8:26 am

      My grandmother would! She’d get so mad at me buying a book at the store and already having it read by time we got home!

      Reply
  • Shara White August 8, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve got Borne in my TBR (which I bought in hardcover because I loved the Southern Reach trilogy so much), but I’m curious, what are some other examples of environmental or ecological speculative fiction? I’m sitting here thinking that surely The Southern Reach trilogy is one.

    Reply
    • calieav August 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm

      Southern Reach, very much so. Gotta read Borne. Have no idea how to really describe. Robin Hobbs, definitely a Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, Kim Stanley Robinson, some Nancy Farmer, Tobias Buckell, Paolo Bagicigulapi

      Reply
      • Casey August 8, 2017 at 5:39 pm

        I wouldn’t really put much of Hobb’s work in this category. The Rain Wilds books *do* feature nature/the setting almost as a character in and of itself, and the issues surrounding the dragons have an impact that I don’t want to go much into because I am loathe to reveal spoilers.

        Reply
      • Shara White August 8, 2017 at 7:27 pm

        I’ve got Door into the Ocean languishing in my TBR. I’ve tried reading one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books (2312) and I bounced right off of it. I’ve read Buckell (good call) and definitely some Bacigalupi (definitely a great call). I’ve only read one Hobb book, and that was epic fantasy, so yeah, can’t comment there. Haven’t read Farmer yet.

        Reply
  • Casey August 8, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    And now I want to read The Snow Queen. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Shara White August 8, 2017 at 7:28 pm

      The Snow Queen has always come highly recommended to me. I’ve just never gotten around to it.

      Reply

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