Class conflict in “Without a Summer”

[Spoilers!]

This summer, I plan to continue analyzing novels nominated for science fiction and fantasy awards.  The Nebula nominations intrigue me more than the Hugos this year; I plan to start with them.  Two of my favorite fantasy authors gained nominations: Mary Robinette Kowal and N. K. Jemisin.   Furthermore, I want to read “2312”, which is on both lists and won the Nebula award.

Ever since a friend gave me a copy of Mary Robinette Kowal’s book, “Shades of Milk and Honey,” I’ve been hooked on her “Glamourist History” series.   The third book, “Without a Summer” pulls loosely from the historical time period of the Luddites’ revolt and includes a volcanic eruption that led to an unseasonably cold winter in 1816.   The main character, Jane, and her spouse, Vincent, are the main characters in the series, and they are both Glamourists who can create magical illusions.

“Without a Summer” is inspired by the Jane Austen book, “Emma”, and Jane attempts to matchmake for her younger sister.  Unfortunately, Jane is biased against the young man due to his Irish family and his Catholicism.  Furthermore, she cannot see her own sister’s strengths due to her own faulty beliefs.  Kowal excels at exploring these biases in Jane, and I found her character growth in the novel to be both believable and enjoyable.  Kowal successfully negotiated the delicate balance between alienating the reader due to revealing the main character’s flaws and creating a character that seemed believable due to the common beliefs held in her time period.  The book definitely explores prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination relating to ethnicity, social class, gender, and religion.

As I hoped, the book entertained while also speaking to larger societal problems in the time period, as well as today.  Many of the societal problems in the book, like technology replacing artisan and craft work, have been contested problems since the Industrial Revolution began.  In fact, this idea related to the Luddites in this time period.  Karl Marx and many other later scholars wrote about the alienating work of the Industrial Revolution, and one of my favorite sociologists, Max Weber, wrote later about bureaucracy and rationalization, as noted by this blogpost by The Cranky Sociologist.  I think that everyone in our society should watch the first twenty minutes of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” as it illustrates control and surveillance in the workplace.  I often make my students watch it when we discuss work, technology, and bureaucracy.  It’s both important to film history and sociology.  (Incidentally, if friends or family wanted to get me a present, I’d love this Weber mug.  I’d love to have seen what Weber would make of both the Internet itself, Internet surveillance, and the fact that he is emblazoned on a mass produced mug.  I’ll have to do another post on one of my all time favorite Weberian concepts, the iron cage, at some point.)

As far as Kowal’s fantasy novel, it shows class conflict and the social movement surrounding the Luddites through a group of magical workers called coldmongers.  The coldmongers were villified and stereotyped by the more powerful, and their dangerous jobs fail to be rewarded well. Also, the book demonstrates how their can be factions within protest, as well as betrayals by infiltrators.  The book is a fun read, but it has layers of depth earning its well-deserved Nebula nomination.  I will read the next book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series as soon as it is published.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology, Teaching

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