Time of the Great Freeze: Cold Comfort

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTime of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg science fiction book reviewsTime of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg

Given that global warming seems to be an almost universally accepted fact of life these days (except by obstinate conspiracy theorists such as my buddy Ron, who also denies that men ever walked on the moon), it might strike a reader as strange to come across a sci-fi novel that posits the advent of a new Ice Age in the early 23rd century. And yet, such is the case with Robert Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze, a novel that first saw the light of day as a Holt, Rinehart & Winston hardcover in 1964. This was right in the middle of Silverberg’s supposed “retirement” period from science fiction, which began in ’59 and ended when editor Frederik Pohl induced the author to come roaring back in ’67. The year 1964 saw Silverberg release only one other sci-fi novel, Regan’s Planet, in addition to 28 “adult” novels (with such marvelous titles as Orgy Isle, Passion Pair, Sin Partners and The Flesh Seekers), one sci-fi short story (“Neighbor”), and nine nonfiction books on such varied topics as the pharaoh Akhenaten, the city of Nineveh, and Antarctica. (Despite being semi-retired at this point, Silverberg apparently could not stop writing if he tried.)

As revealed on the author’s “Quasi-Official Web Site,” Silverberg first got the idea for Time of the Great Freeze during the especially frigid winter of ’62 – ’63, but didn’t actually sit down to write the book until the especially hot following summer. Written as a “young adult” novel, the book yet retains a strong appeal for older readers, a la the great Robert A. Heinlein’s 12 “juveniles” of 1947 – ’58. This was hardly Silverberg’s first novel for young readers — his first book, 1954’s Revolt on Alpha C, as well as 1960’s Lost Race of Mars, had been geared toward the YA group, too — and demonstrates forcefully how the author could write a fast-moving work that would strike a sympathetic chord in all age groups. Take it from this rapidly aging baby boomer: the book is a blast!

In Time of the Great Freeze, the year is 2650, and Earth has been in the grip of its fifth Ice Age for well over 300 years. Silverberg makes this new Ice Age seem plausible to the early 21st century reader when he tells us that after several centuries of global warming, the planet had suddenly begun to cool down at the onset of the 23rd century. The cause: our solar system passing through “a vast cloud of cosmic debris,” which blocks off the sun’s warming radiations. Thus, by 2300, the vast bulk of mankind huddles beneath the glaciated world’s surface in vast underground cities. Against this claustrophobic backdrop the reader meets Jim Barnes, a 17-year-old redhead who is studying to be a hydroponics engineer in New York City, one mile beneath the surface, and with a population of 800,000. Jim’s father — a history professor — and a small band of other science-minded men have lately been engaged in the highly illegal activity of attempting communication via radio with another underground city; London, to be exact. The men are caught in the act and summarily tried and sentenced by the City Council. Their punishment: permanent exile!

And so young Jim, his Dad, and six others find themselves on the frozen surface for the first time in their lives, and resolve to make the 3,000-mile trip to London using their solar-powered sleds as conveyances. And after encountering several communities of surface dwellers — from the troglodyte variety, to the less primitive but still violent, to the peaceable Jersey folks who live on the frozen Atlantic fringes, to the Viking sorts who give the exiles a lift over the open water — and facing down feral wolves and much climatic harshness, the team does make it across the ocean … but their welcome is far different from what they’d anticipated…

The host of Silverberg’s website, Jon Davis, writes that Time of the Great Freeze is “not really a ‘juvenile’ but not really an adult book either,” and he is assuredly correct in that regard. Though the book is basically a straightforward adventure tale written in simple yet elegant prose, it features occasional verbiage that might even throw an adult (such as “gimbals” and “withers”). The book is hardly sugarcoated, and our band of heroes is shown having a very tough time of it throughout. Silverberg makes his supposed “juvenile” quite grim in spots by killing off no less than three of his eight lead characters; these deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly when they occur and are invariably shocking, especially the first one, which alerts the reader that anything might happen to any given character in this gripping tale. Despite the 27th century setting, the sci-fi trappings in the book are minimal and are confined to some futuristic medical gizmos, those solar-powered sleds, and the “power torches” that our team utilizes as weapons.

In addition to Barnes senior and junior, the other members of the expedition — a Native American electronics expert, a linguist, a lawyer, a zoologist, a young police officer and a meteorologist — are all likable men (there are NO female characters in the book); though somewhat sketchily drawn, the reader still feels an affection for them all, and admires both their pluck and spirit. That elusive “sense of wonder” that is the hallmark of all good sci-fi is very much in abundance here, especially when Jim steps foot onto the Earth’s surface and sees the moon, and the stars, and the sun, and a moose, and a fish for the first time. Silverberg gives his young readers — and, I suppose, his older readers, as well — some nice take-away lessons during the course of his book; for example, take these gems of wisdom: “There was time to confront trouble when it came to plague them; no need to fret ahead of time”; “Fighting, killing, that wasn’t the answer. It never was”; and “When you had done your best … there was no shame in failure.”

Time of the Great Freeze is a wonderful novel, all told, and wraps up marvelously and unexpectedly after a rather grim final quarter. The book is nothing deep or terribly demanding, but should certainly provide several evenings of top-notch entertainment. This reader started the book during a blizzard and ended it a few days later, when the wind chill temperature in (the aboveground) New York City was -15 Fahrenheit, and I found it a perfect companion. To tell the truth, despite the fact that I am hardly a “young adult” anymore, I could not put the darn thing down.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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7 comments

  1. So, do you think “cloud of cosmic debris” was Silverberg’s unconscious code for the threat of a “nuclear winter” scenario?

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Hmmm, now THAT had not occurred to me, Marion. I was too busy wondering if Frank Zappa had based one of his famous songs on THIS book, of all things! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtx4ZJ1cwI0

  3. Oh, thank you for that, Sandy!

    • Also applicable, but from a different Zappa song: “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow…”

  4. Sandy, every time you review a Silverberg book, I think “hooray, we’re getting closer to getting all the TBRs off that page” and then I look at it again…. there are A LOT of books left!!! Are you going to read all of them?

  5. Sandy Ferber /

    Well, Kat, the dude’s written around 75 sci-fi novels and I’ve only read around 1/3 of that number. But I’m working on it….

  6. Sandy Ferber /

    @ Jana: GOLD STAR for you!

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