(Keith Robert’s cover for the 1966 edition)
The Ice Schooner (1969) is the second of Michael Moorcock’s novels I’ve read — the first was the equally unremarkable adventure The Warlord of the Air (1971). The Ice Schooner, an homage to seafaring works of Joseph Conrad, functions as a standalone novel without the trappings of Moorcock’s multi-verse mythology. Despite the lack of explicit connection between this novel’s hero and the “eternal champion” character archetype that features in so many of his works, one could argue that Konrad Arflane displays many of the same characteristics.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
In the far future a nuclear war caused drastic temperature change across the globe. The majority of Earth is covered by a massive sheet of ice. Unusual whales have “adapted” to the temperature changes and live on the surface of the ice. They are the primary food source of Earth’s remaining inhabitants. The entire existence of the Matteo Grosso, an ice plateau containing eight cities carved into chasms in the ice (and deeper down, stone), depends on sailing vessels that move across the ice via skis They are ancient vessels constructed with fiberglass hulls — the technology does not exist to create new vessels, rather, all manner of human ingenuity is required to keep them sailing.
The religion of the Matteo Gross surrounds the figure of the Ice Mother. She is rumored to reside (physically or metaphorically, it is never clear which) in the far north. The extreme coldness of the world is considered a natural the state of existence and it is only her mercy that prevents all of humanity from destruction. However, death, due to the incredibly precarious nature of life, is considered in a much different — almost positive — light. Death is simply the return to the Ice Mother’s bosom after a momentary flicker of existence. However, there are rumors (and some evidence) of a slow temperature rise… And new whale herds have been spotted…
The cities of the Matteo Grosso are constantly engaged in competition — trade, warfare etc — with each other. Konrad Arflane, the novel’s hero, was once a captain of an ice-going vessel. However, in order to pay off debts to another city, his vessel was sold. In a state of mental anguish and desperation Konrad heads off into the ice expanses along to contemplate his fate — he loathes to return to his city and serve as a lower ranked officer. At the moment it appears that he has resolved to return to the bosom of the Ice Mother he comes across a dying man who has crawled great distances across the ice. The man is Lord Rorsefne of the wealthiest city of the Matteo Grosso. He is the sole survivor of an ill-fated expedition to the fabled city of New York.
After Konrad Arflane — who had no obligation according to his society’s code of behavior — carries him back to his city he becomes embroiled in the bickering of the members of Lord Rorsefne’s extended family. Eventually, the Lord dies leaving Konrad the command, to the disgust of the Lord’s heir, of the most sophisticated and desired ice vessels as long as he sails north toward New York. Konrad sees the quest almost as a pilgrimage to the Ice Mother. While some of the other passengers see the voyage as a manifestation of the changing world…. A voyage beyond the traditional realms of the Matteo Grosso…
The pros: The Ice Schooner contains an intriguing — if underdeveloped — world and an unusual hero who refuses to depart in action or ideology from his traditional past despite the world changing around him. The friction caused by Arflane’s radical traditionalism butting against other characters who are slowly departing from the time honored ways and the physical evidence of the evolving world is the novel’s central theme. The cons: The novel never moves beyond the simple adventure story framework, which is, in itself, not a problem. However, I found the telling banal and uninvolving. Most disappointing is the love story between Arflane and Ulrica, who is married to Lord Rorsefne’s heir.
If you are a fan of Moorcock then The Ice Schooner is worth reading. If you are interested in an accessible adventure novel with fantasy and sci-fi trappings before plunging into Moorcock’s massive interconnected canon then The Ice Schooner might be the way to go. Only marginally better than Robert Silverberg’s juvenile on the same theme – Time of the Great Freeze (1964)…
(Uncredited cover for the 1969 edition)
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