The Big Idea: Karen Healey

I like a good night’s sleep — but what do you do when your sleep lasts much longer than a night? What happens when you fall asleep in one world and wake up in another one entirely? Author Karen Healey dreams up just such a situation in When We Wake, and the choices she makes for her heroine take cues from other, very deep sleepers.


I wanted to write about a Sleeping Beauty.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a character who sleeps for a hundred years, and then wakes. A hundred years is a long time. In that period, new technologies will be discovered, new diseases will arise, empires may fall, and the very environment may alter entirely. But to the sleeper, these changes aren’t a gradual occurrence, but a sudden, jarring shift – only yesterday, the world was what they knew. Now, it is alien.

How does a Sleeping Beauty cope with all that is lost, not to mention all that is strange to a past-timer’s eyes? How does she construct a new life, in a new world?

So I have a big problem with the Disney version of the Sleeping Beauty archetype, which has, in that charming Disney way, become the version of the story most people know.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty doesn’t sleep for a hundred years. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty takes a lengthy evening nap.


On top of that, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty isn’t the hero of her own story. She appears on screen for about eighteen minutes of the movie’s 85 minute running time. She’s barely a character at all – all we know about her is that she’s pretty, and she likes to sing and dance. She doesn’t do anything, she doesn’t take action.

Older versions of the Sleeping Beauty archetype got to take action, both before and after their lives were suspended. The righteously embittered Valkyrie Brynhildr leaves a trail of destruction after she is awakened by the duplicitous hero Siegfried. Zhang Yunrong, of the Chinese tale by Pei Xing, wins her husband herself – not exactly asleep, but temporarily dead (!), she plays dice with other ghostly maidens for the privilege of his hand in marriage.

In the more recent fairy tale versions by Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault, the Sleeping Beauty is more done unto than doing. In both versions, when the first wife (!) or evil stepmother of the nobleman who awakens her discover the Sleeping Beauty’s existence, and that of her children (!!) they aren’t pleased. In fact, they try to have the children and mother served for dinner (!!!). Thwarted, the evil older lady suffers a terrible death, and the Sleeping Beauties live happily ever after, having overcome the challenges between them and bliss.

Survival is certainly an accomplishment when your mother-in-law is trying to eat you, but it lacks action. Where’s the verve?

Fortunately there’s verve-a-plenty in more modern Sleeping Beauties – such as Captain America.

Cap is one of my favorite Sleeping Beauties. Fallen in valiant battle, he sleeps beneath the ice for X number of decades, until revived into a world that needs him once more. A man out of time, he must negotiate the new cultural and social pressures of this new period, while honoring his past. He does it exceptionally well, and looks exceptionally pretty, even in a uniform with the little wing things on the hood.

And, which I find interesting, he allows himself to be used as a symbol of American exceptionalism – but only up to a point. When Cap discovers a high-ranking US politician secretly commands a terrorist organization, he abandons both uniform and name. He then takes on the identity of Nomad, a roving hero. More recently, Cap opposed new legislation requiring the registration of all superpowered citizens, recognizing the massive privacy breaches and human rights abuses to which such a system would lend itself.

Captain America is a hero’s hero and a nation’s dream; but he’s also his own man, making his own decisions about what that dream should represent.

Then there’s Aang, from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. (We don’t talk about the movie. There is no movie.) The 12-year-old Avatar of his fantasy world, the one who balances the elements in harmony, he runs away from his duties – and into a blizzard which freezes him for a century.

When Aang wakes, he must deal with the results of abdicating his responsibility; the world has changed, and not for the better. Aang mans up and takes action, and he does it with a delightful cheerful optimism that the world can be changed. It can be made better.

These modern Sleeping Beauties became my Big Idea.

What if I wrote a Sleeping Beauty, scientifically suspended, and awaking to a world that had changed forever? What if she had been politically active before her death, and more so upon her revival? What if people wanted to make her a symbol, but she was determined to remain a person? What if she had the stubbornness of Captain America, and the optimism of Aang, and some of the physical skill of both?

And because I adore Brynhildr – what if she didn’t always make the best decisions?

Tegan Oglietti is my Sleeping Beauty.  A sixteen-year-old nascent political activist, she is shot dead on the happiest day of her first lifetime, and revived as the first successful cryonic revival subject, one hundred years on. Everybody wants to use her as a symbol – the government that woke her, the media that can’t decide whether to glamorize or despise her, the religious zealots who see her very existence as blasphemy.

But Tegan is her own woman, making her own decisions. And when she realises what the people in power really have planned for the revival project, she refuses to be done unto. She believes that the world can be made better.

When Tegan wakes, she acts.

And that’s my kind of Sleeping Beauty.

When We Wake: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Karen Healey”

  1. Actually, I find that Sleeping Beauty is a rare case where Disney didn’t completely take over the popular perception of the story. Ask someone to tell you the story of Sleeping Beauty, and I doubt they’ll say that she was only asleep for a short time. The image of the princess sleeping for a hundred years was so powerful that it survived being completely elided from the Disney version.

  2. Makes me think about a superficially similar situation in Bujold’s Cryoburn. Clearly this is an archetype with a lot of power.

  3. UNFORGIVABLE failure to mention “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”! YOU ARE DEAD TO ME KAREN HEALEY.

    And, of course, Ellen Ripley: who is in the terrible position of having nothing left in the world that she recognises, except for her enemy.

    And there’s a slightly different trope in the idea of the hero who sleeps until he’s needed again: King Arthur, Barbarossa, Drake and so forth.

  4. I LOVE that she’s drawing on The Last Airbender for inspiration! That series has so much wisdom – and many ignore it just because it’s in “kid-form.”

  5. Sounds more like Rip Van Winkle than Sleeping Beauty, but interesting all the same.

  6. In defense of my budget, I try hard to resist Big Idea books, or at least check them out of the library first. It’s not working……..

  7. Tegan sounds a little reminiscent of Jessica Lynch, who really did become unconscious and revived, and then everyone started trying to use her for their own political ends.

    I have to say, though, any list of Sleeping Beauties that omits Miles Monroe is a fundamentally flawed list.

  8. That sounds very similar to the idea behind The Sleeper Awakes (HG. Wells), but it’s probably very different and could be good.

  9. I can’t seem to find a kindle version in the online Amazon store. Is there some kind of region shenanigans going on?

  10. I’ve internet-known Karen for years, really looking forward to this one – I LOVED “The Shattering.”

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