Books: Hot blood in a cold climate

Nicolette Jones chills to a compelling vision of our bleak sexual future
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The Independent Culture
The Ice People

by Maggie Gee

Richard Cohen, pounds 15.99, 256pp

IF THE Ice People were written by a man, it would be tempting at first to call it a backlash book. It is set in a future in which separatist feminists rule the UK. The narrator is a man who loses his wife and son to the extremist gynocracy, which disparages men to the extent of giving a boy female hormones to preserve his gentle nature (and his singing voice).

Marriage is more than ever an anachronism, and families almost non-existent. Men and women do not mix. Women live in communes, educating children, and men are forced back into their own embittered and often homosexual company.

And yet this is much more ambitious and subtle than a mere exposition of what might happen if gender segregation became the orthodoxy. The narrator, who tells the story of his life from old age, turns out, as you might expect, to be an unreliable reporter. Gee's great achievement is that she sustains an empathy with him even as it becomes clear that he is deluded about himself.

As a husband (one of the few who marries), he is short-tempered and does not see the point of domestic chores. He develops into someone so self- serving that he can kill people and assume, when his son points out he is a murderer, that the boy is joking. He is so convinced of the frailty of women that he misinterprets the evidence that a woman has been trained to fight and shoot: a bullet that finds its target is "beginner's luck". He kills strangers, betrays those loyal to him, and still believes himself to be a good man.

This would be a much more simplistic novel if we didn't half agree with him. We know that he has behaved badly, but also that he has suffered. The narrator turns out not to be the hero, but is never entirely the villain. There is still horror at his end. In fact, there is a lot of horror. Much of it comes from two other aspects of Gee's future: one, that the climate is brutal, and the other, that robots get out of hand.

The planet experiences an escalation of global warming. There follows an overdue ice age, held misleadingly at bay by the greenhouse effect. Both sets of conditions cause starvation and social breakdown.

As if there weren't enough to worry about, Gee's future offers robots that start as domestic assistants (a substitute for women), or stand-in children (in short supply), and mutate into uncontrollable monsters that feed off people.

This is not a cheery book. On the other hand, it aims high. The (white) author has set herself the challenge of writing a male, mixed-race protagonist, and she shows how convincingly fiction can do more than record personal experience. She writes elegantly, unsentimentally, expertly: Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read. Whatever it says about Amis, that is an accolade this novel helps you understand. It also contains memorable apercus. At one stage, the narrator considers the point of our existence. It can't, he concludes, be love, because "We loved so badly".

works persuasively as science fiction, and is truthful about our emotional lives. It stimulates ideas in a way that would make it a great reading-group book: a catalyst for late-night discussions about our attitudes to men and women. A final warning: if you do try this, don't expect to feel optimistic at dawn.