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The Snow
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 297 pages

The Snow
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt was his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Sellamillion
SF Site Review: The Soddit
SF Site Review: Swiftly
SF Site Review: Stone and Polystom
SF Site Review: Jupiter Magnified
SF Site Review: Stone
SF Site Review: The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Park Polar
SF Site Review: On
SF Site Review: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

As you might gather from the title, Adam Roberts' fifth novel depicts a catastrophic snowfall. Not a mere avalanche or the airports-are-closed kind of weather anomaly, but a precipitous disaster of worldwide scale that obliterates human civilization. Of course, since the story begins with a first-person account of the start of the snow and her subsequent adventures, you already know there are survivors.

Many people had left the city. Some, old and young, had stayed in their rooms until the chill had settled on them forever. A few struggled on. There had been talk -- while the radios still worked -- of a mass evacuation by air, but this had never materialized. After forty days and nights of solid snowfall the sense that there was even a government in charge faded from the mind of those people left in the city. Its authority was lost in the blizzard.
So, initially it seems as though you're reading in the "hearty band of survivors" sub-genre, complete with Biblical allusion to a perhaps divinely ordained apocalypse, along with the survivalist wet dream of the end of formal government. But, if you're familiar with Adam Roberts, you know he's going to take these themes to entirely different climes.

At first, The Snow depicts a barren cold reality in which the narrator, Tira Sahai, an Indian woman approaching middle age separated from an adult daughter born out-of-wedlock, finds herself managing to survive beneath the snow within a London building that provides the basic necessities of foodstuffs and somehow circulating air to breathe, and not much else. She shares this muffling shelter with a single companion, but, the relationship is that of mere presence, not mutual comfort.

This leads to some serious introspection, if only because what else is there to do?

But this is how life is. It doesn't land you all at one, like the house in the Wizard of Oz that flattened the witch -- or perhaps for some people it does , but not for most. For some, maybe, I guess, I can see that some instant catastrophe, their own illness or some disaster knocks them down, concertinas them into a hat and feet. But for most, for the many, it doesn't come all at once. It drifts down, tiny torn-up pieces of you heart, of your job, your body, your weariness, responsibility, pressure, expectations, and little day-today specifics, of ordinary setbacks and difficulties. It settles and settles and then, one day, you look out of your window and you see all of that stuff has covered the ground all around you, has built up without your noticing, And then, another day, you look to your window and you realize you can't even see through them, that the snow has cataracted the glass, and your only surprise is that the panes can withstand the pressure of all the snow pushing in from outside. It is not that you really care either, Some miniature, mandrake-shaped core of you cares, perhaps, but the perispheres -- the face and the limbs, the heart and the brain -- are too numb, and cold, and weary to care.
So it seems as though we're firmly in J.G. Ballard territory in which natural disaster serves as metaphor for the perils of the human condition. And, as this excerpt illustrates, there's some extremely powerful writing here. But this is only thirty some pages into the novel, and you're wondering two things: how can Roberts maintain this depressing intensity and what can possibly happen to sustain the narrative?

You really have no idea.

One day -- and it's uncertain how long Tira has lived underground, though it becomes evident that being underground is a metaphor for her life both in the past and her immediate new future -- miners from the surface in search of food and valuables discover her. There is life on the surface. There is also a new government using the pretext of the need to keep citizens safe secure as a rationale for dictatorship.

This is where it could start to get silly, but, again, because this is a Roberts novel, you have deeper expectations. And you won't be disappointed. Indeed, the first person narration is interrupted with documents presumably retrieved from a government archive. The use of meta-text is standard operating procedure for Roberts, and while you might find yourself wishing the author would try another approach for a change, you can't deny the effectiveness of its use here. There are hints that the snow was a result of a secret government project that went awry, that Australia is one part of the globe where the devastating snow did not hit, and that the new government, for reasons of its own self-preservation, needs to keep details such as these from the general populace. (It is perhaps also why Roberts has abandoned the habit of one-word novel titles: use of the article in The Snow implies not only a "final" or "ultimate" snowfall, but also the sense of a government cover-up in the sense of a "snow job" of wide scale proportions.)

Tira has insights into both perspectives, as she becomes both the wife to a government leader and the lover of an insurgent seeking to topple authority even through terrorist acts. You learn these things through what appears to be the testimony of Tira and the lover who betrays her to the government. Typical of government documents, they are heavily censored, with the names of important personages deleted (which at times makes it difficult to distinguish among who is whom, though of course the point is that regardless of individual names, they are all the same nameless miasma of political corruption).

Okay, so now you're in Orwell's 1984 territory, with perhaps a satiric swipe at the homeland security mindset. But, as you might expect, it's not that straightforward, and soon you're in the shakier climate of Philip K. Dick, complete with a druggie high on UFO conspiracy theory who thinks the snow is the result of an alien invasion, a terraforming to make the planet more hospitable to their biology. And, of course, the government doesn't want anyone to know. Also, of course, it's hard to tell who the real crazies are.

So here you have a mix of what might be described as "high" literary prose blended with a range of science fictional conceits that make for heavy weather conditions. Roberts himself hints at exactly what he's doing when in a postscipt where all has been revealed and a new world order restored, the narrator observes:

Science fiction... has become the new realism, with historical fiction (as all books about the pre-Snow years must necessarily be called) looked down upon as lamentable escapism. We try to come to terms with what has happened to the world.
But the problem is you really can't. You're reading this around the time of the tsunami disaster in Asia in which people around the world are attempting to grasp the meaning behind such an horrific assault of natural forces. Here, then, you discover the difference between fiction and reality. The purpose of fiction is to, if not postulate significance, then at least to impose meaning on otherwise imponderable acts. Unlike fiction, the reality of such immense destruction by extreme weather phenomenon causes us to confront the uncomfortable notion that there really are no explanations, no plots, no divine interventions, no sense at all.

Copyright © 2005 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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