Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pr0nTastic Book Covers: Joan D. Vinge's "The Snow Queen"

Check this puppy out!

Image: Scan of the 1981 UK Orbit edition of Joan D. Vinge's "The Snow Queen". A silver masked queen watches over a man in silver jocks and phallic helmet, who stands over a blond woman on her knees, buttocks thrust out, her face at crotch height. Yeah.

I picked up this copy of Snow Queen in a second hand bookstore earlier this year. It's a book I've been meaning to read for quite some time, and meta meaning to feminist and female authored science fiction aside, isn't this just a killer of a cover?

Killer in the sense of 'don't judge a book by it's cover', because it's really a derailing piece of crap. It bears very little resemblance to any scene in the actual story. It's an attempt to sexify the book for men, which at the same time alienates the female market SF was struggling to reach, when "The Snow Queen" was a story that could be enjoyed by all. Oh noes! Space opera written by a women, with a female driven story! Whatever shall we do?!

Why, make it Pr0nTastic of course!

Let's start with the characters. The best I can ascertain is that the woman in the silver mask and floaty contraption is Arienrhod, the Winter Queen of the book. So far, so good, even if she does look disjointed. Space Cadet in the silver Calvin-Klein's I imagine is Starbuck, the Winter Queen's right hand (cough) man.

Then we come to our obeisant blondey. I'm guessing this is supposed to be Jerusha PalaThion, a policewoman, because this looks like a minor scene in the book where PalaThion visits the Queen's sanctuary and is forced to pay respect on her knees before the monarch.

There are three major things wrong with depicting this scene and these characters. One, the entire story is driven by the conflict between Arienrhod and her clone Moon, destined to be the Summer Queen. A huge erasure, Moon is equally a major character and is not depicted on the cover. Blondey can't be Moon, because Moon looks exactly like Arienrhod, she of the white hair and skin. Two, Starbuck is shown wearing very little, when in the story he wears black robes that completely cover his body, with a face plate on his helmet to disguise his identity. He only disrobes when he fights, hunts or has sex. Three, the scene is outrageously sexual in nature, and bears no resemblance to the actual relationships in the story.

On a minor bugbear note, PalaThion is shown holding a weapon, as if at any time she could shoot Starbuck right in the nuts if he decides to take advantage of that sweet, round shiny ass (seriously, check out the shine on the left butt cheek! That's not an age defect of the cardboard). If it is the scene I'm thinking of, PalaThion had her weapon removed when she entered in the throne room. It's a bad ploy to make a subservient woman look like she has some sort of power over the man towering over her/sexually threatening her...when there was no sexual threat implied in the scene.

It's almost as if the artist simply opened the book at random and cherry picked a couple of descriptions. And since one of these descriptions was about a female character on her knees, then it must be all about Teh Sex!

Look at that phallic helmet! Yes, Starbuck wore a spiked helmet, but he didn't run around in his cyborg undies all the time. It's a story set on a cold, winter-bound planet for crying out loud.

Look at that thrusting ass, tight pants, heels and Mickey ears-like cap PalaThion is wearing. Her helmet at that point in the story is decribed as covering her full head, gold, and NOT ON HER HEAD. PalaThion, in classic badly drawn, anatomically incorrect sex-kitten style, has closed eyes so you can't read her humanity (sex toys don't see, think or breath obvs), no waist, massive buttocks, and stick-like lower legs. It's like someone put a valve in her butt cheeks and blew them up. Welcome to the MiXXXey Mouse Club.

It's no accident that her mouth is at crotch height to Starbuck. This is infantalizing and sexualizing at the same time, discrediting what is a powerful female secondary character. Another point: PalaThion is not physically described very much in the story. It's very telling that the artist envisioned her within the default framework of western beauty standards.

Look at that disjointed depiction of Arienrhod. It disturbs me that she doesn't seem to have legs attached or bent in any anatomically correct way, you can't see her lower arms or hands, and her face is mostly covered by a mask. While masks play a big part in the story, Arienrhod's mask on the cover is a badly simplified version and serves to veil her eyes, dehumanizing her.

Arienrhod is shown in a floating carriage or throne. While the scene in the story describes a throne of metal and glass, it in no way floats. This may be a way to incorporate the technology of the planet that is so important to the story, but it serves to disable Arienrhod. She is depicted on the cover as only half a woman, her eyes soulless, when she is a fully fleshed villain, the major antagonist. It's trotting out those tired old tropes that a woman couldn't possibly be whole or fully human if she is evil, and that disabled and technology enabled people can only be bad.

This cover is a throw back to sexualized pulp space opera covers, and does the book a huge disservice. It shows the trouble publishers and artists had in marketing female written and female driven sci-fi, even entering the 80s.

My favourite artist Michael Whelan created a superior version of the cover in 1988 for a re-release of the book:

Image: Michael Whelan's Depiction of "Snow Queen", a white woman wearing a feather cape and intricate mask.
Whelan did far better depicting Vinge's Snow Queen with his intricate style of encoding symbols into an image, showing that he read and absorbed the story. One can see the sibyl trefoil, Sparks pendant and flute, the Tiamat mer-people, the feathers and jewels used in Festival masks, and depictions of places, ships, technology and plants. While Arienrhod's eyes are closed, you receive some idea of her age and pain from her face, and she is shown as a full and whole woman. He managed to capture the humanity, fullness, beauty and cool villainy of Arienrhod in one spectacular sweep, something which the '81 Orbit cover failed to do in Pr0ntacular fashion.

ETA: Yes, I deliberately chose that edition of the book because of it's horrendous cover!

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