Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Snow

The Snow by Adam Roberts

Mixed reactions. Initially I enjoyed this a lot less than Gradisil, Salt or even Stone. It has some great elements especially early on, a creepy type of situation different than most disaster stories I've read, some sophisticated political expectations and rich characterization. The whole story benefits from its approach on the long term consequences of an apocalypse, how the world reinvents itself when the snow never stops falling. In the catastrophe and the reformation of community there's a critical lens turned on aspects of politics and daily life now, and ultimately the development of action is secondary to the unfolding of this type of social analysis. The novel is a collection of different in-universe documents in some different types and all based on censorship by the regime, although as the characters themselves point out some of the censorship done is fairly pointless, and at times it seems the story is too much in love with the tricks that can be done in this. There are some very vivid situations described, and larger ideas on race, sexuality, politics and science are interesting, better done than at first appears. On the other hand a lot of stuff is undermined by an overly weird and far out twist in the plot and whole structure of the book. I may not mind it as much with some distance, but now I found it partly effective but mostly too absurd for the grim tone of the work.

At core this book basically comes across as three stories in very different tones (and even genres) that occur sequentially to the same character. The first is the story of individual survival against the collapse of the world, showing the first months after the snowfall begins, the physical challenge and behavior. Put in with this account is reflections back on her earlier life which provide the most poignant moments and best writing of the novel. The reflections on race, religion and class for an immigrant to the U.K are particularly powerful, and give a sense of deep sympathy with and insight into some subaltern aspects of British life. The second part of the story occurs after contact with the government of the survivors, an underground military dictatorship called NUSA. This segment involves fitting in as the assigned wife, lots of more detached and systemic reflections on race and the business of politics. More conventional story in a lot of ways, despite the exotic premise. It's not entirely effective dramatically, partly because the character feels overly detached, partly because there are some major plausibility concerns on the ability of society to function. The third part of the novel is what happens when the protagonist gets caught up, romantically and politically, in a government figure that's also a conspiracy-theory revolutionary convinced the government was behind the snow and needs to be overthrown. His terrorist run ensues, a lot of secrets get revealed and the top is blown off the description of the world. The snow if revealed as an alien presence and dialog is opened.

The censorship works as a continual presence across the story, acting to remove almost all formal names and put in [Blank], rendering a type of mechanistic anonymity to the larger account. On a direct level this stylistic form indicates that the struggle to defeat the government, or even resist its control, was already lost. The very personal lifestory comes across mediated through and restricted by the state. I think this aspect could have been a lot more subtle, but as is it's a good theme that connects nicely to the main plot.

What at first appeared to be just a disaster story, and then a tale of human stupidity and conspiracy turns out to be a rather unorthodox first contact narrative, featuring a rather unorthodox alien species. The reflections on alien life, language and consciousness that emerge are pretty interesting, and make the final element simultaneously more hard science fiction as well as even more sociological than the book up to that point. In direct plot terms events turn somewhat absurd, but looking at it at greater distance the big picture presentation of sexuality, power, material austerity and inter-species diplomacy seem almost worth the inelegant aspects of assembly.

The ending was fairly unengaging when I read it. In large part it features the protagonist drifting somewhat out of the main story. There is a breakthrough in contact with the aliens, amazing discoveries are made, new possibilities opened, but by that point the main viewpoint is burned out enough and becomes removed from the larger development of events. This is pretty clearly intentional, a way of playing with expectations for individual accomplishment and even perception.
As with Salt and Stone, and to a lesser extent Gradisil, Roberts' work here is about deconstructing the classic dystopian model. In this case, the theme of individuals necessarily defined by society re-emerges, as well government in question is shown to be less malevolent than was first believed. They have their harsh and inefficient elements, but in the end they're more reasonable than the characters had believed, with a utility and overall ability to work towards necessary large-scale processes that denies blotting them out as a desirable option.

Roberts writes some of the most interesting, intense, cerebral speculative fiction out there, and with his whole literary and post-modernist skillset tends to very different types of stories. The limitation is sometimes that the works focus overly on subtext and developing their themes, and undermine the actual level of story. When the components of raw entertainment and thematic reflection are on a common plane it's utterly fantastic writing. When, as in Snow, the two sides clash a bit it falls short of true greatness. Still a very worthwhile read, and in large sections a compelling one.

Worse than: Gradisil by Adam Roberts

Better than: Stone by Adam Roberts

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