The Ice People is a multi-faceted sci-fi eco-thriller that works on a number of levels and deals with the very real threat of what might happen should another ice-age occur. But the title of the book, The Ice People, does not just refer to the survivors of such a global disaster but also to the ways in which, at the time of the books setting, relationships between the sexes have entirely broken down!
Maggie Gee paints a grim, bleak and often depressing picture of the future. Men and Women have increasingly found themselves with less and less in common and have reverted to staying amongst their own gender groups. Fertility statistics have dropped and less and less children are being concieved naturally with more women resorting to artifical means in order to quiet their biological clocks. Saul is one of a rare few who meets and falls in love with Sarah but even they need a little help to concieve and it is not long before even their relationship begins to crack under severe peer pressure and the constraints of an ever-increasingly fractured society.
And then Saul realises the awful truth......the world is on the brink of an ice-age that could see the eventual extinction of the whole human race and only by fleeing to the warmth of Africa with his only son can he see any hope of survival for himself and his family. Unfortunately, things are not that easy and circumstances conspire to keep him from his son.....
This is an interesting novel that seems to have gathered a whole army of dedicated fans but, for me, there was a little too much going on at once and author Maggie Gee tries to deal with too many issues in a book that is really not long enough to contain them. Throw enough balls in the air and, undoubtedly, some of them are going to land on the floor and that is what happens here. Issues at times are dealt with too briefly and it seems as though Maggie expects the reader to be in as much of a rush to get to the bullet points as she apparently is.
Also many of her predictions for our future society don't ring strictly true and the breakdown between the sexes seems to occur very, very quickly...a little too quickly to totally seem real.
Starting at the near-end of Saul's life, much of the book is told in flashback from Saul's perspective as he hides out in an abandoned airfield accompanied only a group of savage wild-boys who feed him, keep him warm and look out for him for as long as he can tell his story. As one of the few survivors who can still read and write, his life has a high value but as Saul recalls what lead to his present situation, you get the feeling that the clock is ticking and it is only a matter of time before he surpasses all usefullness.
See what I mean about it being quite bleak?
I wanted to enjoy this, and thought it okay, but, much like The Rapture, thought it tried to hard to be enviromentally topical. I did like the way it declared itself pretty much as out-and-out sci-fi with its references to robots called "Doves" who serve as a replacement for company when female relations become terminal, but felt that it never really quite gelled or came together as I like my books to do. Really its whole was not as good as the sum of its parts and whilst there were a few good ideas here, none of them really seemed to come to a satisfying conclusion.
Overall, it was okay, not bad, but only a 3 out of 5 * book at best!
I have always enjoyed the thought provoking novels of Maggie Gee. She writes with great insight, straightforwardly tackling the issues of modern society that others may shy away from. In the past I have read her powerful novels on race and racism - 'The White Family' and 'My Cleaner', and enjoyed them.
Maggie Gee has a very academic background, and does not necessarily write novels that are easy to read. She is a lecturer and researcher - and the first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature. Her novels are usually thoughtful as well as entertaining, and usually address contemporary issues such as racism or global warming. Perhaps surprisingly her work has not received any major awards, although she has been shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize and the International Impac Prize.
A work of science fiction, set in a disturbingly possible future, The Ice People tackles issues of climate change, politics, technology and the changing roles of men and women. The story is set mid 21st century in a world where global warming has rapidly brought on a second ice age. The story centres around Saul - a successful nanotechnologist, tracing his life and relationships over a period of rapid change.
We meet Saul at the beginning of the book - an old man, barely surviving in a dystopian world which is ruled by the young. Temperatures are below freezing, and Saul lives in the ruins of an abandoned airport, kept alive by the wild boys - young, violent, illiterate men who live by their own pack laws and who tolerate Saul because he retains the ability to read and write. Every day he writes his life story, and it is this story that forms the core of the novel. At night he joins the wild boys to sleep in a huge heap of bodies to keep himself warm and alive in the bitter cold, but he knows that as soon as his story is told his usefulness will be finished, and they will end his life.
The book flicks between Saul's present life with the wild boys, and the story of how he came to be there. The world of the young Saul is one that is very hot; global warming has kicked in, and the main occupation is keeping cool. Men and women have ceased to pair, and are instead separated, or "segged". Fertility has declined, and those children that are born are regarded as precious, but remain firmly in the domain of the mother, who lives in her all female commune with her children. The invention of cute robots (Doves) is welcomed by all. Although primarily designed to be useful house servants, the Doves have been made to appear cute - to imitate the cooing, clucking noises and the small, ungainly movements of a young toddler. The child-deprived population find themselves irresistibly attracted to the Doves, and they are soon an essential part of every household.
This is the background to Saul's story. As the heat starts to turn to a sinister cold, so the relationship between men and women harden. The women's communes become political, turning more and more away from men and becoming more and more dominant. Saul bucks the trend - he falls in love and marries a work colleague called Sarah and they have a son called Luke. Their troubled relationship, and the transformation of Sarah into a political activist who shuns men, turns Saul to the violent men's clubs, set up in response to the dominant women's groups.
As the world gets colder and colder, it starts to change beyond recognition. In a strange reversal of current day immigration, western population desperately tries to gain entry into the hotter African countries, only to be turned away at the borders. The Doves change too, gradually mutating and becoming another threat to survival.
Although the reader knows where Saul ends up (alone and living destitute with the wild boys), the story of how he gets there keeps the reader glued. The story of Saul's fight to re-establish the connection with the woman he still loves, and to get his son back against all odds, keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
I found this a fascinating look into the possibilities of a collapsing society. The frightening thing about Gee's dystopian world is that, unlike similar novels, this catastrophe is not brought about by war, genetic mutation or industrial accident - mankind just carries on doing what we are doing now, ignoring all warnings. Are men and women really growing apart? Are we destroying our own world through global warming? Could it all really happen?
One main criticism of the book is the number of issues crammed into one story. The problems fly at the reader in quick succession, and Maggie Gee risks discussing none of them with the depth found in previous novels. The introduction of the Doves into the story seems largely unnecessary- and eventually leads to an almost ridiculous scene of gory violence. It is almost as if Gee is trying to sex up the story by introducing tension and thrills where there is no need to add them.
Overall, I did enjoy this book, despite the faults. It stayed with me for a long time, and made me think about the way we lead our lives and where civilisation is heading. It is perhaps one of the weirder books that I have read, but still one that is worth reading!
Published by Richard Cohen, 1998, 319 pages.
It is currently available from Amazon for £5.99, with many second hand copies available from 1p plus p&p