27 May 2010

Book review: The Ice Schooner

The Ice Schooner (1969)
By Michael Moorcock

What I’ve always appreciated about speculative fiction author Michael Moorcock when he’s at his best is how much economy he brings to work while creating both excitement and introspection. He writes lean novels that are packed with tension and drama, and few other authors could create an entire world setting in such a brief space as he could.

Moorcock also has a knack for creating philosophically challenging pieces without compromising the exciting promise of thrills in fantastic worlds. He is an action and adventure novelist who finds ways to get beyond the surface sheen of what the words “action and adventure mean”—but he still delivers both. This is “escapism” that is never purely escapism.

The Ice Schooner isn’t one of Moorcock’s better-known works from his prime period in the 1960s and ‘70s, and that’s probably because it is a loner among series material. The Ice Schooner was published as a one-shot novel with no connection to Moorcock’s famous sword-and-sorcery heroes like Elric, Von Bek, Corum, or his science-fiction characters Jerry Cornelius and Kane of Old Mars. Although the book is sometimes published in “Eternal Champion” collections, it doesn’t seem to have many overt links to that multiverse setting. Is it’s complex hero Konrad Arflane an embodiment of the Eternal Champion in the struggle between Chaos and Order. Perhaps, but none of those terms ever appear in The Ice Schooner, and this may account for why it doesn’t get as much attention from the period in its author’s career.

Although The Ice Schooner is a Moorcock vehicle worth riding, since it embodies his robust, intelligent storytelling skill and intriguing world building in the customary concentrated package. The pages fly past, but it’s not a fast food waste of time.

As Moorcock notes in an introduction to an omnibus edition containing The Ice Schooner (the White Wolf volume Sailing to Utopia, if you’re interested), the novel arose came from a shared British science fiction fascination in the 1960s with environmental themes. Good examples are The Drowned World and The Burning World by the late J. G. Ballard and Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. The Ice Schooner fits into the “environmental apocalypse” theme: ice now covers the entire earth at an unknown time in the future. The animal life of the ocean has adapted to the ice, and the whales of the sea now move about on the surface like enormous seals.

In this world of endless glaciers, human survive in cities bored into the rock exposed deep in crevasses. Ships built like sailing vessels ships of old, constructed of material that humans can no longer reproduce, scud across the ice on runners. The ships hunt land whales and send trade between the eight cities of the icelands. Enough time living this way has shifted humanity’s view of nature: people have lost the fear of a cold death, and heat is now their enemy, the enemy of the revered Ice Mother.

Moorcock sketches out this believable new environmental order in a few chapters and gives it a sense of long history in the dominant religion of the Ice Mother. As usual, I’m impressed with Moorcock’s economy and his skill in starting an adventure story in a fresh setting without dragging me through detail for detail’s sake.

The novel’s hero Konrad Arflane believes dogmatically in the Ice Mother and the promise that the ice will never vanish, no warmth will ever return, and people must accept this. Arflane knows of reports that the ice is melting and its levels falling in places, but he cannot Arflane cannot believe that nature moves in this direction. He fears that humans will weaken and softening their ways, and this will doom them. This is an unusual position for a hero of a story to hold, the inflexible and anti-progress one, but Moorcock loves to upend expectations. He gives us a hero with a possibility of an awakening from a dangerous religious fundamentalism and fatalism, a man’s who adherence to law faces a test through his love for a forbidden woman.

Arflane is an ice skipper, but when the novel opens he has abandoned his city of Brershill because its decline has created a dearth of ships and commands. While on a plateau, Arflane rescues an aristocrat from the powerful city of Friesgalt, Lord Pyotr Rorsefne. He returns the man to Friesgalt and remains as the lord’s guest, mostly because he is entranced with the beauty of his daughter, Ulrica Ulsenn, who is married to the intolerable Janek Ulsenn.

Lord Rorsefene makes a request of Arflane. A ship has spotted what may be the ruins of the fabled “New York,” a city frozen deep in ice and rumored to be the home of the Ice Mother. Arflane agrees to captain the finest of all the ice ships, Ice Spirit to the north to find New York.

Events turn in a way that Arflane makes the expedition with three unexpected companions: Ulrica, her cousin Manfred, and the suspicious Janek Ulsenn. The journey to the great unknown of the north will face the many perils of the icelands—crevasses, barbarians, runaway hills—but also the challenge of how the characters’ differing views must change in the face of what they are searching for. Personal hatreds and conspiracies aboard also make for a dangerous, eventful voyage.

Moorcock uses the maritime adventure as the basis for his future setting, with similar language and characters, like “salty dog” harpooner Urquart, and a feel for rough seaport towns. The difference is that there’s no water, only ice. The tone also leans toward heroic fantasy, with the accouterments of barbarian and warrior society, but is solidly in the realm of science fiction. This is an ideal expression of the sub-genre of “science fantasy,” one that Moorcock helped developed in the 1960s.

The Ice Schooner has copious sequences of tensions, such as a deadly run through tight glacier valleys on the Ice Spirit, but it is the conflict between Arflane and everyone else that makes it work. Moorcock isn’t afraid to really mentally and phsycially hurt his characters (there are some surprising deaths) and put them into situations with unwinable results arising from any choice. Arflane’s character arc is particularly interesting, since it’s hard to tell exactly how it will come out, and what sort of “hero” the skipper will be in the end.

However, the most interesting character is Urquart, an experienced and toughened sailor who is also an illegitimate son of Lord Rorsefene. He’s an ardent supporter of Arflane because of his spiritual loyalty to the Ice Mother, but since the novel plays with the pitfalls of dogmatic beliefs, Urquart turns into one of the deadly unpredictables as the voyage nears its conclusion.

Moorcock novels rarely have any sag to them, but The Ice Schooner does fall victim to the monotony of its own setting in places; the endless ice white creeps into a middle stretch of sailing that feels as if Moorcock could have sliced maybe 5,000 words from it.

But the pacing problem during this one section can’t overbalance the conclusion, which brings all the developments together in an ideal way without letting the reader feel that the book cheated with too tidy an ending. Arflane and his crew go through too much on their journey to the great secret of the world in which they live to simply walk away to look toward a certain future.