The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Short version: Mary Robinette Kowal is awesome and one of my favorite people on the planet, her two previous novels have both been nominated for the Nebula Award, which is a fine trick, and Without a Summer continues her streak of excellence handily. Now I’m going to get out of the way and let Mary be awesome in your general direction.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure;

seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

Jane Austen, Emma

When I pitched Without a Summer to my editor, I described it as, “Jane Austen’s Emma against the Luddite rebellion.”

When we talk about Luddites today, we think of people who are backwards and don’t like technology. What was actually going on with the Luddites was way more complicated than that. The Regency was a time of great social change. It’s when we see the rise of the middle class. It has the beginning of steam power and the start of the industrial revolution. The Luddites were a movement that began to protest the introduction of automated looms.

Prior to this, cloth was woven by individuals at home, for a factory. The introduction of the looms reduced the demand for this labor. It also meant that workers were now employed outside the home, which suddenly caused a need for childcare. For this and other reasons, the looms were seen as a disruption of lifestyle and weavers began a series of riots. They were eventually stopped when seventeen of the protesters were put on trial in 1813, with the key members being hanged.

I used the Luddites as the basis for my coldmongers.

In my version of history, everyone has the ability to work glamour, or magic. For most of society it’s simply a decorative art that’s used to beautify the home. But there is one set of skills that is practical and that’s the ability to make things cooler. (Not cold, mind you, because full on refrigeration would break history.) Coldmongers can make things a few degrees cooler, but it’s difficult and takes a hard physical toll. As a result, it falls into the category of labor that is done by the poor and the young for the wealthy.

When the Year Without a Summer hits, which is a real historical event, the world had record cold temperatures and in my novel that forced the coldmongers out of work. This parallels what actually happened.

But it also allowed me to talk about class in ways that you don’t normally get to in a Jane Austen style novel.

In Emma, there are a dozen places where Miss Austen obliquely refers to servants and to Emma’s obliviousness to them. They are invisible and ubiquitous. In Without a Summer, by centering events on coldmongers I’m able to bring the servant class out of the background and on stage as actors.

I use Jane Vincent, my main character, to stand in for the role of Emma. She’s a young lady of quality and has a certain set of assumptions based on how she was raised. When Miss Austen wrote Emma, she said, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” because the character was often blinded her own beliefs.

In Emma’s case, those assumptions were about matchmaking. For Jane, with the Luddites and coldmongers, we get into a whole different set of prejudices.

It is a little frightening to take a character I love and make her flaws so visible. But that journey was the thing that excited me. That’s why I wanted Emma to meet the Luddites.

—-

Without a Summer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s journal. Follow her on Twitter.

17 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. I love books which take a piece of real history and play with it in a speculative fashion. I now must find and read this book!!!

    (thanks again, John, for increasing my reading pile) ;)

  2. And you gotta admire a woman who can tear it out as the reader of her own book. Talented!

  3. Oh puleese. Why not let Emma meet sparkly vampires or Jean Luc Picard. Or better yet, have her go forward in time and prevent Harry Turtledove’s birth. If John Ringo wrote Jane Austin fanfic, I might read that, though.

  4. Ooo, that sounds really cool! I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Robinette Kowal at Midsouth Con a couple of years ago, and she was just plain wonderful. She gave me and lots of others great writing advice, too. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to read her work, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I’m easily distracted and I work in a bookstore that keeps Rick Bragg’s novels in stock. (The damn things call to me whenever I walk by, derailing my plans to read anything else.) My only excuse is that my “To read” list has approximately one million books on it. But I love these types of stories as well as Jane Austen’s work. I have to read this. NO EXCUSES.

  5. Sounds like a good read. Now, change the blurb on the front cover. A good rule of thumb is; don’t start your blurbs with ‘Readers will be disappointed…’

  6. “Prior to this, cloth was woven by individuals at home, for a factory. The introduction of the looms reduced the demand for this labor. It also meant that workers were now employed outside the home, which suddenly caused a need for childcare. For this and other reasons, the looms were seen as a disruption of lifestyle and weavers began a series of riots.”

    … and now it’s a radical idea to allow individuals to work at home instead of in an outside workplace especially built for work. Ahh, the turning of history.

  7. You had me at Jane Austen. Your book cut in line when you mashed up Luddites and Maxwell’s Demon.

    @ revmuddswife

    And you gotta admire a woman who can tear it out as the reader of her own book. Talented!

    She does her own audio book reading? …Why yes she does, and the audible price is uncommonly reasonable. What luck, I have a road trip across the great state of Texas tomorrow!

    @ GF Dad

    If John Ringo wrote Jane Austin fanfic, I might read that, though.

    An unlikelier convergence is hard to imagine…unless Jane Austin is Jane Austen’s gun-toting S&M doppelganger…let’s not even go there.

    @ MWT

    … and now it’s a radical idea to allow individuals to work at home instead of in an outside workplace especially built for work. Ahh, the turning of history.

    Somehow it’s hard to imagine today’s latte-sipping teleworkers going the way of old Ned Ludd…though I could see them writing some Captain Swing emails.

  8. Whilst (heh) I do encourage everyone to buy this, it should be pointed out that it’s the third in a series. You’ll enjoy it without the further background (plenty of catch-up without infodumps or “As you know, Bob”), but of course it’ll give away what Jane was up to in the first and second book and then you won’t have fun surprises.

  9. There is something…. jarring… about that cover image. I don’t know what it is, but it sets my spidey sense tingling.

  10. I love Mary Robinette Kowal’s work and a copy of this new one is wending its way through the mail toward my house even as I type.

  11. It was sitting on my porch this morning. Alas It might be a while before I get to it. I’m in the middle of S&S right now and one must cleanse the palate between delicacies.

  12. Glamour in Glass was better and deeper than Shades of Milk and Honey; and it sounds as if Without a Summer will be better and deeper again. I love watching a series get better and better. I am so looking forward to reading this book. Thank you for the gift of it, Mary!

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