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Burning the Ice
Laura J. Mixon
Tor Books, 541 pages

Burning the Ice
Laura J. Mixon
Trained as a chemical engineer, Laura Mixon found her way into environmental engineering and consulting after a two year stint in the Peace Corps. A devoted writer of science fiction since she was a child, in 1995 she quit to pursue her writing full-time. She has written four books -- Astropilots, Glass Houses, Greenwar (which she cowrote with Stephen Gould), and most recently, Proxies. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband (Stephen Gould) and their two children.

Laura J. Mixon Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Laura J. Mixon
SF Site Interview: Steven Gould & Laura J. Mixon
SF Site Review: Proxies

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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If Hal Clement and Ursula K. Le Guin ever collaborated on a novel, the result would probably bear close resemblance to Laura J. Mixon's Burning the Ice. Ambitious and complex, Mixon didn't set out to lower the bar with this tale of a society of cloned colonists struggling to terraform a frozen moon orbiting a distant, jovian world. Which isn't to say Burning the Ice is perfect. It isn't. There are flaws here, starting with the title which is at best irrelevant, and at worst a red herring. But the end result is still fascinating and leaves the reader wondering what the future holds for this determined, icebound society.

The book starts out on the frozen moon, Brimstone, with Manda, a singleton and outcast of the clone society there, stumbling into a peculiar mystery. A computer-projected syntellect of Carli, the long-deceased founder of the colony, inexplicably shows Manda a secret room that is cut off from all electronic surveillance. A room that also holds the frozen corpse of the original Carli. As if that wasn't enough, the syntellect leaves Manda with an ominous warning that the colony ship that deposited the clones upon Brimstone decades before never actually departed the system, and even now is in orbit around the planet, monitoring the colony's terraforming efforts.

In the course of her investigations, Manda quickly learns that the ship and the colonists did not part on friendly terms. If the ship does indeed return to Brimstone, bringing along with it the powerful, virtually immortal "crêche-born" who rule it, the impoverished colonists would be practically defenseless.

This breathless start is nearly undone by a series of ponderous info-dumps, however, which bogs things down as Mixon goes into detailed explanations about the alien solar system, the Brimstone environment, orbital mechanics and clone societal structure. Naturally, with a creation this complex the author needs to hold the reader's hand to a certain extent, but here the reader is hit with too many blocks of exposition too soon and for too long for the ploy to go unnoticed. Fortunately, once the exposition is out of the way, the story proceeds at a brisk clip.

Mixon's world building is rigorous and convincing, something very much in the flavor of Clement's best efforts, but a couple of questions nagged at me and were never satisfactorily resolved: Why was the search for and discovery of sea floor vents such an issue given the ample evidence of geothermal evidence around the colony itself? And where did all that free oxygen on Brimstone come from, given the fact there was no native ecology capable of generating such an atmosphere?

I found it odd that these simple questions were ignored or glossed over, given the obvious effort put forth to develop other aspects of Brimstone in logical fashion.

More impressive than Mixon's careful world building is her cloned society populating Brimstone. It is a marvel, hitting all the right notes. Going well beyond clichè, the cloned society here is both terrifying and rational. Modern society's familiarity with cloning presents a challenge that is tough to overcome, namely, why would a clone society be any different from one of identical twins, or even fraternal siblings? Mixon undercuts this with a fascinating, multi-generational structure of clone lineages. All clones -- with the exception of Manda, whose twin died during gestation -- are part of a pair or even a triplet, joined in a nearly telepathic bond by advanced technology. The harsh environment drives the members of each clone lineage to draw strength and comfort from each other, all the while engaged in intense competition with other clone lines for prestige and societal standing. What could easily have degenerated into absurdity or farce comes off as very serious and straightforward, owing an obvious debt to the Hainish societal forerunners from Le Guin's various stories.

And lest it gets lost in the shuffle, special praise must be reserved for Mixon's Brimstone natives. As a reader who particularly loathes bipedal, humanoid extraterrestrials, I found the Brimstonians extremely interesting and plausibly alien. The human protagonists were able to deduce too much, too quickly about the aliens without much more than intuition to guide them, but that's more of a quibble than anything else. More than a quibble is the fact that just as juicy details about the aliens begin to bubble forth, the plot whisks off in another direction entirely, using these fascinating creatures as macguffins, mere catalysts for the pell-mell sequence of events that lead up to the grand finale.

And that may be the biggest flaw in Burning the Ice: it's too big, too sprawling, too all-encompassing. There are tons of ideas here, enough to fuel the fires of several novels, at least. But with a handful of exceptions, most of these grand ideas are given short shrift simply because there isn't enough room to explore them thoroughly in a novel that already tops 500 pages. There are at least two more books here that cry out to be written, and hopefully, when she has time to linger, Mixon will return to Brimstone someday and do just that.

Copyright © 2002 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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