Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Ice Schooner review

Why the heck is Ulrica barefoot on
the ice? Must be the lust plagued ship
keep her warm. 
In my continuing exploration of influential writers of fantasy novels from a few decades ago, I decided to read a book by Michael Moorcock. I’ve started to read a book of his before, one the many Elric of Melniboné stories but for reasons I can’t remember, I never finished it. I wanted to give Moorcock another change though because he’s been an incredible influence on so many writers, many writers I like. Moorcock’s body of work is notoriously difficult to navigate. Most of his oeuvre is interconnected and I didn’t want to start at the end of a 10 book series or with the third trilogy of four or something like that but because of the interconnectedness of his body of work and the sheer number of stories he wrote, it’s nearly impossible to pick the right book to read. I decided to take a completely different approach than what I usually do and just go to my local used book store and judge Moorcock’s books by their covers.

I picked up four books by Moorcock. One with a cover by Frank Frazetta, another because it’s the book directly preceding the one with the Frazetta cover, a third because it’s supposed to be one of Moorcock’s best and I liked the cover. The fourth book is The Ice Schooner. Just look at that cover by Boris Vallejo. A frozen planet where people travel in ships on skis? Look at the sexualized drawings of the characters on the cover. Why is she barefoot? I also think that the cover blurb is ridiculous: “Aboard a lust-plagued ship they crossed a frozen hell to a city of legendary doom.” I admit, I didn’t buy this book because I thought it would be good. I bought it because I thought it would be terrible. It wasn’t. It’s actually pretty good for a few different reasons. It’s not a science fiction masterpiece by any means but I had a great time reading it.
                                      
The story begins with Konrad Arflane, a former captain of a whaling ice ship. The ship he captained was given away by the owner so that he could pay off a debt. Arflane is wondering around without any motivation or goal in mind. He rescues the Ship Lord of one of the Eight Cities which are located on a huge plateau above the location of Matteo Grosso in South America. There in the city of Ship Lord Rorsefne, Arflane is asked to captain a ship and voyage to the fabled city of New York to discover if there are any truths to the rumours that the ice age is coming to an end. That’s the basic setup of the book and Moorcock uses it to explore the conflicting notions of science and religion, against tradition and modernization. Many characters have different points of view on the chances occurring around them, the dwindling population of ice whales and the warming climate, while others refuse to accept these changes and regress further into the comforting arms of their deity, the Ice Mother. By putting all these different characters on an ice ship headed on a dangerous journey creates a lot of conflict, some of it plot related and some of it character related. In the end, it all culminates into a futuristic version of Heart of Darkness that ends with a twist reminiscent of The Planet of the Apes.


A terrible depiction of an ice whale. That's
not how I pictured them at all. It looks so
much smaller than it should.
The World of The Ice Schooner:
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the world building. There is a surprising amount of world building taking place for such a slim novel but Moorcock makes it feel organic by developing his vision of a future earth through characters and situations present in the story as opposed to heavy-handed narration.

The story is set in earth’s future during a new ice age. The ice age has lasted for thousands of years and the world has adapted. Whales now walk on land or ice as is more often the case. They have four flippers which they use to move around at surprising speed. Their skin is brown and they’re covered in wiry hair which grows when they reach maturity at around three years of age. Moorcock never develops the rest of the food chain but they have teeth which leads me to believe they’re carnivores. We have no idea what the ice whales eat or how they live but we do learn that they travel in herds. There are other animals that still populate the world. Nomadic barbarians in the north have domesticated large bear like creatures which they use as means of transportation. There are also smaller ice whales which live in the north and large birds that live off of the remains of other animals. Wolves also continue to exist but it’s mentioned that they’re on the decline. Moorcock doesn’t make many of much vegetation. He makes no mentions of trees, perhaps conifers were all wiped out by the harsh climate. The sun is described as being red which makes sense. An older sun would explain the ice age.

It was interesting to see how humans adapted to the change in climate. Ice ships became the main mode of transportation because it runs on wind and doesn’t require fuel. Their diet consists of seals, ice whales and other Arctic and Antarctic mammals. They also eat lichens which grow in certain areas as well as seaweed. The Eight Cities of the plateau are located in large crevasses in the ice. There is a pretty rigid social structure. Rich merchant families are the aristocracy and they live in the rock carved homes while the poorer families live at the top of the crevice in the homes carved out of ice. The merchants have no respect for the lives of whalers and sailors. There primary concern is their ships from which they make their living. The ice ships are antiques but it’s difficult to believe they’re made from their original wood. Moorcock mentions that whale bone and fiberglass where used to strengthen the ships. It’s unclear whether or not any ships were built out of bone and fiberglass only except for the smaller sailboats they used while whale hunting. How they made fiberglass is anyone’s guess.

As per the Leiber quote above, the radical changes on the planet’s surface resulted in a change in humanity’s beliefs. One of the more interesting aspects of Moorcock’s story is the cult of the Ice Mother. Fritz Leiber once wrote in one of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, “Times and customs change. Periods of reverence alternate with periods of realism.” Moorcock seems to be exploring this very idea in The Ice Schooner with the cult of the Ice Mother. The belief is based on the idea that the natural state of the planet is to be cold. It’s easier to believe is this notion when your entire world is surrounded by ice and snow. When you die, your body loses its heat and become cold thus supporting the ideas of the cult. Many characters in the book find it difficult to accept that the world might be warming up because it’s an unnatural idea to them. It defies the teaching of the Ice Mother and the natural order. Moorcock shows us some interesting rituals that have developed such as bloodletting when offending the Ice Mother. People believe that their blood is a source of heat in their body so by bleeding themselves and presenting their blood to the Ice Mother they are cooling down their body temperature.

 
More ice whales. They just look like
fat seals. How disappointing.
The various characters in The Ice Schooner are defined by their interpretation of the changes, or lack of changes, happening to their world. In that sense, the journey to New York means different things to different people. For Urquart it’s a religious journey. He believes that Arflane is the chosen one who will plead the cause of humanity at the Ice Mother’s court in New York and have her stop the ice from melting in the South. For Manfred Rorsefne seems to go along with the journey out of boredom stemming from his aristocratic lifestyle. Arflane was more difficult to understand than most characters but by the time I reached the end of the book I understood him. Arflane searches for the truth. His story begins at a point in his life where he has lost everything he ever valued, a captain’s commission on a whaling ship, some respect and a bit money. During his self-exile and his chance encounter with Ship Lord Rorsefne, he’s gained a purpose in life. This purpose, this sense of direction quickly transformed into a maddening desire to search for the truth after his events on the Ice Spirit. All of the characters are trying to force their beliefs onto to Arflane. Arflane is different from the other characters because he doesn’t begin the voyage with his mind set on specific ideas. For him, it’s truly a journey of discovery. Another way in which Arflane is different is that he’s not entirely consumed by his search for answers. He’s regularly distracted by the female charm of Ulrica Ulsenn, daughter of Lord Rorsefne.

For its size, The Ice Schooner is a pretty impressive book. Moorcock does a great deal of world building but it’s old school world building. It’s fast and loose, I would categorize it as improvisational and that fits with Moorcock’s prolific period of the sixties and seventies. It’s not the kind of world building we’re used to seeing in fantasy novels of today, which is to say highly detailed and organized. The short length, a mere 267 pages, is filled with action, character interactions and numerous plot elements. The only real aspect of the book I didn’t like was Moorcock’s poor job writing women. Ulrica is the only female character of note and she’s limited to being and object of desire and a damsel to be rescued. There is plenty to enjoy in The Ice Schooner and even though it would resurface as a forgotten science fiction classic of yesteryear, I’ll be thinking about the times I spent in the Ice Age of the far future, travelling in ice ships and hunting ice whales.

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