Iron Winter. Book Review

iron_winterIRON WINTER by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz, trade p/b, £14.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Stephen Baxter has written, to great acclaim, novels covering many approaches to Science Fiction but one theme that he returns to frequently is the alternative history. This series, the first two being Stone Spring and Bronze Summer, takes the ‘What if?’ question to extremes. Instead of just changing the outcomes of pivotal points in human history, he explores alternative outcomes to climate change – not in the present but in the past. Unlike some writers in this sub-genre Baxter is bold, taking a whole world view instead of remaining parochial.

Iron Winter shows the culmination of dramatic climate change and the effects it has on civilisation. The date is 1315 but the world would be unrecognisable to a man from that year in our time line. Here the Roman Empire never rose to prominence, partly because Hannibal successfully took his elephants across the Alps to sack Rome. Thus Carthage never faded in to obscurity and the Greeks were able to build on the skills of such men as Pythagoras. Christ founded his religion but lived on into old age. There are steam trains crossing Europe and a huge wall bordering southern edge of the North Sea, keeps the ocean from encroaching. Great pumps and mechanisms within the wall keep the landside dry and resident’s homes heated and ventilated. The main city, Etxelur, is a trading hub, having contacts with Cathay (ruled by the Mongols rather than the Chinese) and various nations in the New World.

Pyxeas is an elderly scientist from Etxelur who is taking measurements in Coldland (our Greenland) and living amongst the native people. He is the one who first notices the sudden change in climate and realises the implications. He sees that the glaciers are growing. There have been unusual weather patterns in other parts of the world; drought in crop growing areas, floods in normally dry places. Already, populations are on the move as crops fail. Then the snows start early.

Pyxeas is sure that the ice is not going to retreat, that a long winter (an ice age) will consume the fertile lands. He tells his family to go south before heading east to Cathay to meet up with the scientists there. He doesn’t expect to be able to reverse the situation but he does want to understand why it is happening. Part of the novel is about Pyxeas’s journey both physical and into scientific understanding. Other characters do not necessarily believe his warning but his niece, Rina, takes heed for the sake of her children and the narrative follows her changing situation. She leaves Etxelur as a rich, propertied matron, high in the politics of her city and gradually descends to the status of an impoverished refugee dependant on the charity to others to survive.

Baxter’s talent is in predicting the results of this world wide disaster and its effect on societies. He has already shown, in other books, the way even seemingly insignificant events can change history. Here it is not just history that is changing but the face of life on Earth. There will be mass extinctions; will Homo sapiens be one of them? There is no doubt that civilisation will be replaced by the need for survival bringing to the surface all the baser human instincts. Because of the scope of the novel, characterisation suffers. Here the only well drawn character is the weather. The events that overtake the human ones are convincing but they are otherwise sketchily developed.

To fully appreciate the scale of events, this is a book that is best read while the weather is cold outside. In high summer, it would have less impact.