Fiction Reviews

Iron Winter

(2012) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 474pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08928-0


Following Book One: Stone Spring and Bronze Summer this novel concludes Stephen Baxterís Northland trilogy, set on the plain of what in our world is the North Sea. It has some parallels with John Christopherís The World in Winter, where refugees from the glaciers reclaiming the British Isles find little welcome in North Africa, and with Christopher Priestís Fugue for a Darkening Island, where Britain faces a wave of boat people coming the other way. Both of those are set in the near future, though, whereas this one is alternative history for the late 14th century.

The core idea of the trilogy is that 7,000 years ago the inhabitants of Extelur, a peninsula on the north edge of the land bridge to ĎAlbiaí, built a Wall to hold back the rising waters of the North Sea. My problem with it is that even here, when sea levels have again plunged dramatically, we are told twice that the water outside the wall is higher than the interior land. It is confirmed that the south coast is penetrated by a deep Cut, presumably formed by the combined waters of the Thames and the Rhine. But why has not the English Channel flooded all of it? My only explanation is that the land south of Dover is higher than in our time, sloping down to the north towards the Wall. But if that is the answer, itís left as an exercise for the reader.

The cultures of Northland and Albia have resisted the northward spread of agriculture, winning the struggle which Neil Oliver envisages in A History of Ancient Britain (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011). But in this world human activities have a big influence on climate, and the relative non-development of Britain and Northland is enough to tip the balance during the downturns of solar activity which we call the Wolf and SpŲrer Minima. Instead of the Mini-Ice-Age which we had, shutting down the Viking colonies in Greenland and forcing the Anasazi from their lands in North America, Baxterís world experiences a sudden glaciation comparable to the Younger Dryas of c.10,900 BC, cited in his endnotes.

The entire populations of Europe and the Middle East are displaced southward. Ironically, if the Black Death (which is present) reached the fatality levels of up to 50% that we know, there would have been room for them; but then there would be far less dramatic tension. Presumably the cold restrains the full fury of the plague, and the massive crop failures mean that the refugees canít be provided for.

Essentially itís a novel of missed opportunities, great things which might have been done, swept aside by the advancing cold. I felt particularly sorry for the scientist Pyxeas and his counterpart Bolghai, in the new regime established following the Mongol conquest of China. Pyxeas corresponds to Nicholas of Lynn, who made voyages to Norway and Iceland around 1360, and claimed to have travelled all the way from 54 degrees to the Pole, alone, making observations with an astrolabe. In Iron Winter Pyxeas he makes the same journey as Marco Polo and has even more astronomical knowledge than Nicholas of Lynn: he carries the Oracle, a counterpart to the Antikythera Mechanism left in Northland during the exile of Pythagoras from Greece. He and Bolghai donít have electricity, but with the amount of amber being traded it canít be far away; they do have steam trains, with a counterpart to the Tay Bridge Disaster as conditions worsen on the Wall. Although their focus is on understanding the climate change, it struck me that in their experiments theyíre very close to inventing the liquid fuel rocket, more than 500 years before Goddard. After finishing the novel I dreamed an episode, set in this world without the ice, where China colonised the Solar System and was reaching for the stars with photon drive by our time. It is not the novel Stephen Baxter has chosen to write (though I suspect heíd be the one to do it), but the dream is a tribute to the power of the ideas.

Instead, it all goes to waste. The Oracle is smashed in a bandit attack; Bolghai dies pointlessly in a palace revolution; the weather records in the Wall Archives are burned in lieu of firewood; an artist who invents perspective is conscripted into the Carthaginian army. In extremis, Northland reneges on treaties thousands of years old, first with the Hatti in the Middle East and then with the People of the Jaguar in Central America. A crude summary of the plotlines would be that the characters go on journeys, they have a bad time and then they die. But although there are no green shoots of climatic recovery, at the end of the novel the survivors of Extelur are adapting to an Inuit-style existence; in our Ice Ages the glaciers never covered southern England, so if I am right about the geography the ice sheets may never reach the Wall. And while the Hatti invasion of Mexico will be no picnic, there are hints that the outcome will be more positive than it was for the Aztecs and Incas in our world. Hope is still left at the bottom of the box.

Duncan Lunan

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