Carolyn Ives Gilman‘s novella The Ice Owl, originally published in the November/December issue of the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction, was nominated for (but didn’t win) both the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 2012. The Ice Owl is set in the same universe as Gilman’s earlier novella Arkfall (2008). These stories can be read independently.
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, Wasters are usually seen as trouble, heretics or rebels. Thorn is a teenager but has already lived parts of her life on nine different planets, making her 145 years old in sequential time when the story starts. The planet she is living on at that time is unstable. Riots are common and 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 travelers reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Hainish universe, for instance, where the ansible links communication on the various planets, but actually getting to any of them takes years. Every time Thorn moves, she leaves behind the people she knew with the realization that even if she ever goes back, they will 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, so she is looking to lay down roots somewhere.
The planet most of the story is set on is tidally-locked with only a small strip of land being inhabitable, a land in perpetual twilight. The planet has no breathable atmosphere and the city Thorn lives in is domed. In her introduction to The Ice Owl, Gilman mentions that she meant to create a culture that fit 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 and, 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.
The real conflict in the novel, though, is the relationship between Thorn and her mother. Thorn realizes that her mother has made a mess of her life more than once and she isn’t very impressed with it. Gilman captures very well Thorn’s anger, disappointment, and attempts at rebellion. She can be quite rash and very harsh in her judgement, which leads her to equally rash actions as the story progresses. You can’t help but feel for both women. Thorn’s mother is not perfect but, even seen through the eyes of her daughter, you can tell she cares and, in her own way, is trying to make things right.
The Ice Owl is a very well-crafted novella. Gilman makes the most out of the science fictional concepts and sketches what is essentially a very recognizable situation but with the unusual circumstances raising the stakes considerably.