1960s, 1968, apocalyptic, Atomic Age!, Cold War, cryogenics, French, intrigue, Lost World, morality tale, Prix des Libraires winner, René Barjavel, science fiction, super scientists, suspended animation, utopian
René Barjavel is the author who may have been first to come up with the “grandfather paradox” in time-travel, and that’s pretty informative of what he wrote. We often recall France’s great science fiction leader, Jules Verne, while overlooking his waves of contemporaries, much less authors like Barjavel who penned SF novels in the 1940s into the 1980s. Many of his works remain untranslated, though several were printed in English in the late ’60s and early ’70s. One of his earliest novels, Ravage, was translated by Damon Knight as Ashes, Ashes; another, La nuit des temps, became The Ice People.
A group of French explorers in Antarctica make a wondrous discovery—a large golden sphere buried deep under the ice. Joined by a multitude of foreigners to become international band of scientists and technicians, the expedition begins its delve into the ice and uncovers one miracle after another. The prize: two human beings, one male and one female, cryogenically frozen from some 900,000 years in the past. After thawing out the woman, Elea, she tells a pitiable story of a human utopia from before known history, of her love won and lost under the looming shroud of apocalyptic war, where great technologies have become humanity’s greatest asset (as well as its potential destruction). Meanwhile, agent provocateurs and spies have infiltrated the scientific base; steaming south are American carrier-groups and a Soviet sub-flotilla. As the story of the past’s final war is retold, the last war of the present may be playing out as well…
It’s pretty clear that the novel was intended as an anti-war novel, and while it doesn’t specify that theme in the “contemporary” timeline—the Soviets, Americans, and Europeans tend to grudgingly work together—the flashbacks to the time before are rife with metaphor. It takes Vietnam War-era turmoil and transplants it to the end times: as nuclear weapons sanitize the moon’s tropical jungles into ash and rubble, riot police and student protesters clash beneath giant monitors urging calm as it’s assured war will be averted. It’s epic scenery, pure sensawunda for me, and some of the book’s more effective scenes. Each side has their own weapon guaranteeing mutually assured destruction, and their petty politics and ideologies have led them astray. It’s firm-handed but poignant, definitely a product of its time.
The Ice People felt oddly old-fashioned to me, bringing to mind the ideological utopias, future histories, and suspended animation plots of the 1930s (Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come for one, his When the Sleeper Awakes for another, Stapledon’s Last and First Men for a third). Not surprisingly, Barjavel was influenced by H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, with which is shares the suspended-animation trope. In terms of writing and translation, it’s perfectly modern, with very serviceable prose and some decent (if cardboard) characters, though Barjavel does tend to ramble a bit and venture off on asides—such as visiting one particular French family, standing in as civilian everymen. The themes are all very contemporary for the 1970s, dominated by Cold War politics—nods to the Non-Aligned Movement and France’s tenuous “neutral” role between the greater powers. No, it’s mostly that the novel is a utopian future-history in reverse—the utopian far-past is now just a dream, televised live from the Antarctic as a warning to a world in the grips of Cold War.
That isn’t all there is, though; the novel is very unique, having elements of different genres and sub-genres. In the present, it’s got a team of super-scientists going out and doing science things (ala a Star Trek away team). It’s got elements of a spy-thriller, with different intrigues lurking within the expedition. The story in the past revolves around a rather effective SF romance—that will probably cause many readers to groan, but trust me, it’s neither sappy nor trite, and packs a bit of an emotional punch. Especially with some of its surprises, and the brutal depiction of a world tearing itself apart beneath a dying moon, the world on the brink of total destruction. Said romance also has a long escape attempt, where the two young lovers are pursued—there’s a good bit of action here. Really, the book has it all, and does a decent job of putting it together.
Barjavel’s The Ice People takes an unrelentingly gloomy stance on humanity, more than willing to condemn us to our own destruction both in the present and in the past. Its plot of a woman awakened from a past utopian society is interesting, buoyed by present threats and the remembrances of past losses. While it has many weak elements—such as its weak characterization, and its sometimes heavy-handed role as a morality tale—it plays to its strengths. I am not someone who reaches for romance novels off the shelf, but found that element to be quite profound and effective. It’s backed up by an interesting lost civilization, a few thrills and chases, and enough other parts to interest all readers. It probably won’t make my top reads of the year, but I found The Ice People surprisingly good—I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the obscure book more than surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations.
Title: La nuit des temps (The Ice People)
Author: René Barjavel
Publisher: Pyramid Books (1970 ed)
What I Read: paperback
Price I Paid: part of a $12 eBay lot (15 worn books)
ISBN: 0515029130 (out of print)
First published: 1968