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Interview: Carolyn Ives Gilman on “The Ice Owl”

Tell us a bit about the story.

“The Ice Owl” is about a smart, slightly alienated teenager named Thorn who has grown up traveling from planet to planet along with her charming but irresponsible mother, Maya.  They are members of a class of people called Wasters, who have given up the sequential, rooted existence on planets for a roaming lifestyle that takes them all over human-inhabited space.  In this story, they are living in the iron city of Glory to God, where a fundamentalist revolt is brewing.  When extremists burn Thorn’s school, she is forced to find a tutor.  But the tutor she chooses, Magister Pregaldin, turns out to be hiding a secret that Thorn has to become a detective to find out.  The answer is more than she bargained for.

What was the inspiration for “The Ice Owl,” or what prompted you to write it?

Truly, this was an accidental story.  I set out to write the story of what happens to Thorn and Maya on the next planet they land on, but I felt I needed a flashback to explain the situation they just escaped from.  Then the flashback took over and became the story.

As Gordon noted in his introduction, “The Ice Owl” is set in the same universe as my novella “Arkfall,” but it’s also the same universe as a number of other stories I’ve written.  My novel Halfway Human is set in this universe, and the ice owl comes from the planet where “The Honeycrafters” takes place.  I’ve started calling this universe the Twenty Planets; I sure hope I don’t use them all up.  I never planned to write linked stories; I just keep coming back to this universe because the rules are congenial.  They have light-speed transport and (by the time this story takes place) primitive instantaneous communication. This creates some interesting situations I like to play with.  For example, in this story I wanted to explore what it would be like to grow up as an interplanetary vagabond—a childhood similar to what military kids have today, but with the time delays of space travel built in.

Another ingredient of the story came from my work in a museum.  The professional literature is just now full of stories about the repatriation of art looted by the Nazis, which a lot of museums have inadvertently ended up owning.  The situation has created legal problems that will long outlive the survivors of World War II.  It has always seemed to me there was a story there.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this novella?

I am virtually always doing research, though I don’t think of it that way—I think of it as keeping up with the world.  I’m an avid reader of science magazines and scientific news.  I never know what sort of tidbit is going to come in handy, so I just shovel it all in, and something is sure to come out.  In this case, I admit I had to spend a day doing some directed research on chemistry to get one part of the story right enough to be convincing.

The setting of “The Ice Owl” is very vividly imagined and described, to the point that it’s almost a character itself.  Could you speak further about Glory to God: its genesis, etc.?

As in “Arkfall,” I started with a type of planet found in our own solar system, in this case a tidally locked planet like Mercury, where one face is permanently turned toward the sun, making half the planet too hot to inhabit and the other half too cold.  Life would only be feasible in the narrow strip between permanent day and permanent night.  Such a planet is unlikely to have an atmosphere, so my city had to be domed.  The inhabitants would have plenty of solar and geothermal energy, so they could get their oxygen from the iron oxides that are plentiful on this planet, and use the iron for building.  Living in an iron city on an airless planet seemed a rather grim and desperate existence to me, so I gave them a grim and desperate culture.  Fundamentalist religion, authoritarian power structures, and extremism are all reactions to the sheer difficulty of surviving in a place like this.

          In editing the story, Gordon suggested I put in more nonhuman life forms, which was an interesting challenge.  I wanted to put in cicadas because they would have given the story a rather maddening sound track; but they couldn’t survive without foliage to eat, so I have to give them up.  But there are two life forms that are going to go everywhere human beings go—rats and cockroaches.  We’re vectors for their spread.  So they are the dominant nonhuman residents of Glory to God.

Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Ice Owl” personal?

The main personal element in this story is one just about anyone has experienced—the moment when you realize that your parents are not really adult.  Or rather, that being adult doesn’t make a person any wiser, more powerful, or more competent at life.  I remember how disillusioned I felt when I found that my parents were just muddling along, and didn’t really know any more about coping with the world than I did—in some ways, less.  It takes a long time to forgive them for that.

          This is also a story about the moment when you first realize that life is a series of deliberate choices for which you are going to be responsible.  When we’re children, all the important choices are made for us by adults; we might not like them, but the onus of deciding is out of our hands.  But that phase of life ends.  I am frustrated by how many stories indulge in the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a life that is guided by outside forces.  Think of all the stories where the protagonist is fated to become king, or to save the world, or is thrust into a situation where there is only one right course of action.  It’s all about the author’s longing for a return to an infantile existence.  But life is not like that.  We aren’t just acted upon by events; we have to create our own futures through our own decisions, for better or worse.  What’s more, we create other people’s futures.  This is the main lesson Thorn learns from Magister Pregaldin.

What are you working on now?

I have just finished final revisions on my next fantasy novel, Ison of the Isles, the sequel to Isles of the Forsaken, which came out in August.  It’s a very intense book.  And for all the people who were frustrated when the first book ended with “to be continued,” the second book does wrap up the story!  It comes out in spring of 2012. 

 “The Ice Owl” appears in the November/December 2011 issue.


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