NESFA Members' Reviews

coverBurning the Ice

by Laura J. Mixon

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, 2003, $25.95, 544 pp

This is the first book that I've read by Laura Mixon, and it appears that I should have started reading her sooner as it's an excellent story.

The book is set in the universe of Proxies and probably one or more other books, but it's a completely stand-alone read.

There is a human colony on Brimstone, a planet of 47 Ursae Majoris – actually a moon orbiting a super-Jovian orbiting 47 Ursae Majoris. It was planted by a spaceship stolen from Earth and is apparently the only interstellar colony. It's unclear just how the ship came to be stolen – I assume that that story is told in another book – but some things are clear. The ship is run by the Creche-born, a dozen people who were raised from infancy linked into a computer network – some sort of perverted experiment. The Creche-born are natural computer-whizzes, and utterly, nastily, loony. They are so used to living in virtual worlds that they are unable to emphasize with the reality of anything. Other people are constructs of no value beyond their utility just alike anything else. (This is, incidentally, as far as I can tell an original observation of Mixon's – I suspect that the blurring of the boundaries between the real and the unreal would lead to most masters of cyber universes falling into pure solipsism and acting utterly ruthlessly towards real people. This is a major downside which needs to be explored.)

When the Creche-born stole the ship, they also took along a substantial number of their own cloned children who also were apparently experimental subjects. These children had been fertilized in vitro and were raised in sets of identical twins and triplets, and there would typically multiple sets of identicals of different ages forming a clone (in the correct, technical sense of the word.) None of the children were direct clones if the Creche-born, but were pair-wise crosses.

A woman, Carli, who was neither of the clones nor of the Creche-born, and who seems to have been the leader/mother-figure of them all, forced the Creche-born to drop most of the clones and sufficient equipment on Brimstone to form a colony and then to leave for another star, and good riddance to them all!

The colony is now around twenty years old, has a thousand people and is in trouble.

Brimstone is a very cold planet – pretty much like what Earth was like in one of its iceball stages, with the oceans frozen over right to the equator and no land animals or plants left. There is some primitive life in the oceans. The colonists have a buried city in an extensive cave system but don't have the facilities to replace some kinds of equipment when it wears out and see no more than 20-30 years left before they must be able to live on the surface: Thin air, intense cold, radiation from the jovian's radiation belts and all.

Manda CarliPablo (meaning her clone is a cross between Carli and Pablo, one of the Creche-born) is the youngest member of the CarliPablo clone and she's a strange young woman (in her early 20s). She's strange because her twin died in the (artificial) womb and they decided to let her live as a singleton. This is odd because everyone else is a member of a twin or triplet. She's strange and alone.

Mixon does a brilliant job of imagining the social life of the colony. The clone replaces the family as the fundamental social unit, with the members of a clone – from 3 to a dozen or so – having similar talents and thinking very much alike, just as identical twins do in reality. (Incidentally, their technology allows them to create members of both sexes in the clones, and many sets of identical twins are one male and one female.) There is no sex within the clones – they're family – and the psychological dependence of individuals on their twins and their clone is so strong that sexual bonds outside of the clones are rare, also.

This is a fine job of imagining a plausible alien human society.

Manda doesn't fit well in this world and is usually a rebel and a bit of a troublemaker, especially since her clone is deep in colony politics and its senior set of twins hold a set on the colony's council. They're continually embarrassed by her and this causes her simply to rebel more. Manda current project is doing deep sea exploration using remotely-controlled submersibles cruising beneath the ice and is wrapped up in her project when she is guided to a previously-unknown chamber by one of the more eccentric pseudo-personalities in the colony's network of AIs, one which is modeled after the long-dead Carli. The chamber contains Carli's frozen body and things of Carli's.

Like any human society, the colony has politics and different people want different things – some (including CarliPablo) what to push ahead and try to terraform Brimstone, while others think that impossible and see the best chance being to stay underground and to develop new power sources and technologies.

Then disaster strikes with an earthquake and cave-in and many deaths and the colony is closer than ever to collapse. On top of that, it appears that the Creche-born never left the 47 Ursae Majoris system and are now returning and planning to take over the colony.

It's Manda's good fortune – though this is definitely a case of luck favoring the prepared, since it would not have happened had she not been so dogged in her pursuit of marine studies – to make a series of discoveries which bring all of the colony's problems to a boil at once, and then to take the action needed to resolve them all.

Add to that a fine love story!

This is a superb SF novel with a fascinating and believable society and people who are well-crafted characters, interesting and really quite involving.

Highly recommended

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