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.