Poul Anderson, The Winter of the World

Sorry to repeat a trope and a theme, but oh, 1970s science fiction: at what point did you figure out a way to at least fake an understanding of women's lives and values? Poul Anderson's The Winter of the World is interesting for a lot of reasons, though maddening or off-putting for others, but its gender politics are pretty dodgy. Check the cover image, for example, which has little to do with the plot: note the woman in bare feet on what may be ice, the handsome specimens behind her, and the increasingly erect phallic weapons the men are holding (read left to right, from downward ax to erect spear).

As with Callenbach's Ecotopia, and I'm guessing most of a generation's worth of science fiction, reading The Winter of the World is partly an exercise in mental gymnastics, in that you have to figure out what can be abstracted that's not irretrievably connected to the gender ridiculousness. But the setup means you persist, even though it takes 60% or more of the book before you start getting much payoff:
"First came the ice--and a magnificent civilization collapsed beneath the glaciers. Then all men became barbarians living in a time of chaos. But out of confusion came new and perhaps stronger cultures...." (back-cover blurb)
Not exactly global warming, but really, we should be talking about climate change anyway, or about increased climate instability, or something. Warming is the short-term effect, but the longer term is harder to imagine what with all the cascading effects, hypercorrections, inversions, and whatnot that might come down the pike at us. So yeah, this novel just might have something to offer.

Much of The Winter of the World has to do with what appears to be a far-future New Orleans, several thousand years in the future, after a lengthy Ice Age has scoured much of the planet. Three (or possibly four) of the world's powers are in conflict in the general area, including the Northlanders, who are the most unusual of the groups in terms of their political structure, gender relations, and ecological role. It takes the novel a long time to get to what the blurb promises, and there's a fair bit of action along the way there (swashbuckling! promiscuity! learning new languages!) that'd suit most science fiction of this period. Eventually, though, we end up somewhere kind of unique: an ancient city that was saved from the glaciers, possibly Chicago, whose towers remain standing but are being gradually quarried for their metal.

Upon first seeing this huge, abandoned city, a minor character remarks, "I never really appreciated till now ... what a lot the ancestors grabbed. They left us mighty lean mines and oil wells, didn't they?... As is, nobody will make anything like this city again" (p.151). One of the main characters thinks to himself, in reply, that this theory would explain why the world's most productive mines were along coastlines, which would have been underwater before the ice came and hence not available for exploitation. More than that, though:
"Was that why the ancients died? Had they spent so much of the earth that, when the Ice overcrawled a great part of it, not enough of remained for them to live the only way they knew how?" (p.150)
Presumably, yeah: much like in The Road, not enough survives the catastrophe for civilization to rebuild itself the way it was, and in The Winter of the World, it takes thousands of years for much of anything to happen, in terms of what we might call civilization.

From the abandoned city of Roong, the novel moves on to some seriously interesting speculations on human evolution going forward, with natural selection favouring those who'd rather live in small groups without rulers, rather than in large groups under someone's direction, and favouring those who'd rather spend a lot of time in nature, being natural. It turns out in the end that the novel's oddly 70s gender politics (women able to think themselves into non-fertile states! shared sexual partners! open marriages!) might be part of the way forward, once civilization collapses. This doesn't make it more likely you won't roll your eyes at much of it, mind you, but at least there's a reason for it.

Fascinating stuff. Not the best writing, or the least predictable, or even the sexiest, speaking of that, with oddly little eroticism for a novel so keenly interested in sex sex sex, but fascinating in times of climate change.


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