While the concept was based on dodgy science from the 1960s that was later disproven, I have a special place in my heart for stories about apocalyptic ice ages. A large part of it is simply due to my own ambivalent feelings about winter. I love seeing snow and ice cover the world like a muffling blanket while I huddle for warmth in a blanket of my own, but at the same time the short days and grey skies wreak havoc on my mood. At least for myself, depictions of the world ending in ice have a terrible finality that most apocalyptic scenarios don’t possess. Only a few plants and animals can survive the cold, and humans must sequester themselves into enclosed habitats just to survive. With global warming, plagues, and zombies, human life can go on, but an ice age is the cessation of life, one even more complete that the worst nuclear war scenario. Nothing can outlast the cold, and once they are gone there is no way for them to come back. Perhaps the most powerful apocalyptic image I have ever seen is from Stephen Spielberg’s insufficiently appreciated A. I. Artificial Intelligence. Near the end of the movie, the human race goes extinct as ecological degradation has led to the Earth becoming engulfed in ice sheets hundreds of meters thick. We are introduced to this world by a glimpse of a dead New York where only a few skyscrapers poke up above the ice, and where a robotic civilization has razored out perfect canyons out of the planetary glacier to explore the ruins of their former creators. While such a scene could never occur in real life, it is still the most memorable and haunting image I have seen depicting the death of our species.
It is for these reasons that I decided to pick up Ice, a short novel from 1967 written by the British modernist Anna Kavan. I first encountered the novel while reading some favorable comments sf author Brian Aldiss made of it in his genre history Trillion Year Spree, but I had forgotten about it until just a few weeks ago when I discovered a 50th anniversary republication in a local bookstore. The premise alone was enough to get me to try the novel, but Ice ended up taking me on a very strange journey all its own.
While Ice has been described as a science fiction novel, it sits on a dividing line between genre science fiction, modernist experimentation, and those deeply personal novels that simply defy categorization. At its most basic level, Ice is a struggle between three unnamed characters in a world where pollution and nuclear testing have sent global temperatures into a terminal downward spiral. The novel opens with the unnamed male narrator returning home (presumably Britain, though all locations in the novel are kept geographically vague) after a long stint overseas to reconnect with a woman dubbed “the glass girl.” In the narrator’s telling, she is a very frail, timid sort, the victim of years of parental abuse, easily distinguished by her delicate features and silvery hair. Soon after arriving, the narrator discovers that she has fled her domineering husband to join the hordes of refugees looking for sanctuary abroad from the encroaching cold. The narrator follows her to a unnamed Scandinavian country, only to discover she has been taken as a prize by “the warden,” an autocratic strongman who has made himself one of the few remaining bulwarks of a rapidly collapsing civilization. From here the novel evolves into a struggle between the narrator and the warden for control of the girl, but as she flees and voyages south through a world descending into barbarian chaos and hedonistic self-deception, the conflict shifts away from the warder and toward the one developing between the narrator and the girl herself.
While this may be a simple structure for a plot, Anna Kavan uses it as a scaffold to build something far greater. The power of Ice lies in its use of description to build atmosphere and mood. The dread begins early in the novel, as the narrator drives through an abandoned English countryside chilled with unnatural cold, filled with abandoned farms and wrecked houses that have no one left to repair them. As the narrator voyages overseas the world becomes increasingly chaotic and claustrophobic. Oceanic voyages devolve from struggling to secure a berth onboard to bribing captains to even venture near frozen ports. Martial law becomes universal in the freezing nations, only for the soldiers to be overwhelmed by war and looters while their leaders flee to sunnier climes. International communication dies out entirely, leaving people wholly unaware of what is going on outside their backyards. And through it all there are vast glaciers, cool and unsympathetic, advancing by the hour around the remaining outposts of mankind.
At the same time, the narrative is crafted to both reinforce this feeling and utilize it for a different thematic purpose. Right in the first chapter the narrator is introduced with a slippery grasp on reality. During his account of his journey through the countryside, he slides into a vision of the girl with her feet frozen into the ground looking up in terror at the walls of ice closing in around her, a vision that constantly reappears in the course of the novel. No matter how outlandish or phantasmagoric, these visions are treated by the narrator as a continuous account, leaving the reader unable to properly judge the veracity of the narrator’s account without looking for sudden radical shifts in the narrative. At the same time, these visions alter and darken our interpretation of the narrator. While the narrator initially describes his motives for seeking the girl are borne out of affection and compassion, his behavior shows a deep contempt for any other man who interacts with her. As he squares off against the warden, the visions become increasingly violent. The man sees the girl lying on the ground with her neck snapped after a barbarian attack, as a prize to be bargained for in a medieval fantasy the recasts him as a warrior under the command of the warden, and as a sacrifice to be thrown down by the townspeople to appease a terrible sea dragon. The warden himself shifts in the narrator’s esteem from a figure of scorn to an admirable leader, even to the point where the narrator finds himself increasingly unable to separate their two personas. In time, Ice reveals itself as not just an apocalyptic narrative, but a depiction of the ways men can use and rationalize the use of violence to dominate, control, and destroy women. Perhaps the only sympathetic character in Ice is the glass girl, a woman who is forever described by other as fragile and needing male protection, who is only allowed to reveal her full potential in a few stolen moments when neither the narrator or the warden are present. However, Ice is a tragedy, and at the end of the day the girl is taken and subsumed by the narrator while the last sparks of human civilization are subsumed by the hungry ice.
While I know very little of Anna Kavan, the biographical discussion provided by the anniversary edition makes a compelling case for reading Ice as a deeply personal work. Born Helen Woods in 1901, Kavan’s life was marked by parental neglect, a chance at university denied by forced matrimony, a lifelong heroin addiction, two unhappy marriages with unsympathetic, domineering men, a great deal of travel, and several serious bouts of mental illness. Her first novels appeared in the 1930s, and were for the most part conventional narratives revolving around a semiautobiographical protagonist named Anna Kavan. Initially writing under the name of Helen Ferguson, she legally changed her name to Anna Kavan and took her writing in a more experimental, phantasmagoric direction. In the afterword to Ice, author Kate Zambreno describes Kavan as a author who was continually rewriting the same story, finally reaching her apotheosis with Ice, and it is hard to find fault with that assessment.
While Ice is certainly not for everyone, it is a powerful apocalyptic work all the same, and for me it easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is one of the great new discoveries I made in 2017, and I will be seeking out more of Ms. Kavan’s work in the future.