The Ice People is a lesser-known French science fiction novel by René Barjavel. In French, it is known by the more nuanced title, La Nuit Des Temps (the Night of Time). I chose it primarily because I was bewitched by the cover design and the promise of its Frenchness.
Incidentally, I really like the quiet nationalism of science fiction books penned by authors from smaller countries. In the work of Karel Capek, Czechoslovakia is a major player on the global scene; in Fred Hoyle and early Arthur C. Clarke, the British control the military-industrial complex; in Berjavel, the French helm massive scientific expeditions, and scientists, frustrated by the lag in their simultaneous translation devices, resort to a global tongue, French, in their most passionate moments. Of course, when you can invent ancient Lost Worlds and English-speaking Newts, why not throw in a little fantasy about national politics? One for the home team? After all, isn’t that what science fiction is all about? Boosting the ultimate home team — Earth?
Unsurprisingly, then, this novel has an impressive cult following in France: people sport tattoos of mystic mathematical symbols from The Ice People and collect insciptions and autographs from the author — there are even Berjavel Days in his hometown of Nyons.
I found out after reading The Ice People that René Berjavel was the first author to ponder the grandfather paradox of time travel. There is nothing altogether surprising about this, as The Ice People tells two parallel stories: of a lost civilization, some 9,000 years old, and of the present-day world, struggling to deal with this recently-discovered past. Here’s the lowdown: a posse of Antarctic scientists discover the ruins of an inconceivably ancient city below the ice. When they journey to exhume it, they find it’s pretty much disintegrated over time; however, they do unearth a massive golden sphere beneath the city, packed in a pocket of sand and rock, which seems to have been built to last. The sphere and the city are 9,000 years old, and indicate a complex, technologically sophisticated human society at its peak during a time that modern scientists thought was the province of monkeys, not men. Everyone struggles with the notion.
Inside the sphere are two people, cryogenically frozen, ready to be resuscitated. A man and a woman, obviously; the scientists decide to wake the woman first. She wakes up believing she has only slept a night, only to discover that eons have passed, everyone she loves is dead, and no one speaks her language. In this sense the novel is as much a belletristic love story cloaked with Romeo and Juliet-level tragedy as it is a thought experiment in science fiction. There is a part of me that privileges the thought experiment over the romance, perhaps as an overcompensation for being a female reader of a traditionally male genre, but I cannot deny the compelling dimension of this element of the story. Everything and everyone in the lost, 9,000 year-old human world was annihilated by world war, the planet destroyed beyond recognition, and this woman was forced against her will to represent the species in a future time! And her love, her man, made her do it so that she could live, even though he would die! And now she’s naked, hungry, in a makeshift hospital in the Antarctic surrounded by jabbering men who want her to explain the prodigious scientific achievements of her people! And nothing has really changed in the human psyche, after all, as the world greedily clambers for war over the “Ice People!”
And what can we expect to happen next, really, but another nuclear war?
We’re expected to learn from this; or rather, we are expected to shamefully hang our heads and think, “we will never learn.” We are also supposed to be empowered by the selflessness of true love. These two hackneyed messages, about the eternal fuckedupness of the human race and the power of eternal love, are so mainstream (and contradictory) as to be actually surprising.
Which makes The Ice People radically boring, or boringly radical.
NEXT BOOK: FRANK HERBERT’S THE SANTAROGA BARRIER