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Brave New Reading List: The Ice People

by Brita Thielen
The Ice People cover

“I, Saul, Teller of Tales, Keeper of Doves, Slayer of Wolves, shall tell the story of my times.”

If you’ve ever wondered what if might be like to live during an ice age, The Ice People by Maggie Gee (1998; Richard Cohen Books) should probably be the next book you pick up. I had never heard of the novel prior to this semester – nor of Maggie Gee, for that matter (though she’s written twelve books), but it will be hard to forget.

The Ice People charts the journey of a man named Saul, who reaches adulthood in London during the “Tropical Time,” a period of increased heat due to global warming, in the early 2020s. However, it is clear from the opening chapter that Saul is narrating his youth from a later point in time, about 2050, when the world has plunged into a new ice age, the human population has been decimated, and society as we know it has all but disintegrated. “Present-day” Saul (2050) lives among a group of feral children in an abandoned airplane hangar, allowed to survive because he can care for the “Doves” – robots who look like cartoonish bird/human children and were introduced during the Tropical Time to serve as housecleaners, entertainers, and “friends.” The feral children are fascinated by the Doves, who are remnants of a now-obliterated past.

For Saul, the Doves serve as a reminder of his life before the ice – particularly his wife Sarah and son Luke, both of whom are lost to him. Saul believes he will soon be killed by the wild children because he is too old (at the age of 60), so he spends his days frantically documenting his life, trying to show on paper the heroism he never felt was recognized by his family. In many ways, Saul’s life began when he met Sarah, the woman he both loved and hated and who in many ways remains the center of his life; appropriately, his tale begins and ends with their romance.

Like Margaret Atwood and P.D. James, Maggie Gee includes infertility as a concern for the characters in The Ice People. Like most heterosexual couples during the Tropical Times, Saul and Sarah struggle to conceive, and it is only through intense medical assistance that their son Luke is born. The novel focuses heavily on gender roles and sexuality; in fact, Saul and Sarah are an anomaly as a couple because most men and women have taken up “segging.” As Saul describes it, “. . . a great gap had grown up between the sexes.” Romantic and social bonds are almost exclusively same-gendered, and women in particular view men with increasing hostility. To be clear, this “segging” is not the cause of the infertility problem or the “cooling” between men and women – it is the result. As Saul says, “The kids had been the glue that held us together. When babies stopped coming, the men got the blame. The women felt thwarted, and abandoned us. . . . They didn’t want us. We were no good. And we believed them, deep inside.” Saul feels worthless without Sarah, and while the novel’s society benefits from the segregated arrangement in some ways, overall it seems to do more harm than good.

I should mention that Saul is a very unreliable narrator. He alternates between loving Sarah passionately and despising her (sometimes in the same paragraph), of seeing women as both the enemy and men’s salvation. He sees himself as a misunderstood hero one minute but then claims he is not sure if he is a good person. He is complex; he is human. And that is the real beauty of this novel, for me. The characters are richly developed and complicated, and I would find my mind drifting back to them hours after I had closed the book for the day. At one point Saul refers to himself as Scheherazade, and I certainly kept wishing for one more day, for the story to continue night after night.

I wish I could describe everything I loved about this novel, but then you wouldn’t need to read it. However, here are just a few quick additions: in addition to the richly-rendered human relationships, The Ice People also depicts affection between humans and the robotic Doves – and the confusion that can occur when artificial intelligence becomes a little too convincing. Gee also lets her characters dwell on the possibility/usefulness of morality when basic survival is on the line. Finally, I don’t think any description of this novel could be complete without mentioning Saul’s love and devotion to his son. Their relationship is beautifully and heartbreakingly rendered.

Recommended if: You are interested in the complexity of romantic relationships and/or environmental disaster or apocalyptic fiction. There is a technological angle that will probably appeal to fans of Brave New World or science fiction, as well as meditation on gender roles/performance and parent-child relationships reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Children of Men