Book review: Arkfall / The Ice Owl, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

9 07 2016

Carolyn Ives Gilman is a historian / SF writer with multiple Nebula award nominations; she’s also been shortlisted for the Hugo, Locus, and Tiptree awards. Arkfall and The Ice Owl are a pair of novellas first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and subsequently separately published under Arc Manor’s ‘Phoenix Pick’ imprint. Since each novella is reasonably short, and since the books share a universe (though they have no settings, characters, or overlying story arc in common), it seems expedient to review them in tandem.


Arkfall is set within the ice-roofed oceans of a Europa-like planet, Ben, where pressure-adapted humans have colonised the Salton Sea. The colonists are divided into ‘barnacles’—those who make their living in one or other of the multiply-domed seafloor habitats—and ‘floaters’—those who roam from habitat to habitat in large, cyborg-like submarines called ‘arks’. Osaji is an unrepentant floater, but she’s not happy with her lot: as the youngest grandchild of, and reluctantly-dutiful carer for, the fading Mota, it seems to her that she is not allowed to make any choices for herself. Her ambition to emigrate to another world thwarted by Ben’s frustratingly-indirect bureaucracy (on Ben, almost all dialogue is held in passive-voice and using the pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, so as not to cause undue offence), she signs up for yet another tour on a new ark. An accident places her on this ark alone with grandmother Mota and with Scrappin’ Jack, an inappropriately-upfront offworld mercenary with whom, surely, she cannot find any common ground. And yet, doomed to months of drifting in this ark, some kind of rapprochement is clearly necessary if they are to survive the hazards of this lightless submarine environment.


In The Ice Owl, century-old teenager Thorn lives with her mother Maya, an unlicensed reproductive-services provider, and Maya’s current boyfriend, the bounty hunter Hunter, in the tenements of a domed habitat on a tidally-locked airless planet where the overarching culture is one of piety and repression. When a gang of overzealous vandals—’Incorruptibles’—firebombs Thorn’s school, on the basis of inferred iniquity, she must find a tutor so as to continue her education. She chooses an old man she has seen in their neighbourhood park, one Soren Pregaldin, who she rapidly learns has lived on several worlds (she herself is on her ninth world, which accounts for her time-lagged age) and has amassed an impressive collection of offworld—and here illegal—artworks, books, and curios. Magister Pregaldin encourages Thorn’s developing initiative and independence of thought, but he presumably doesn’t intend for his young charge to use this newfound direction to explore his own past, which seems to grow shadier the more she learns of it. Nonetheless, a friendship develops between them, and he presents her with a small refrigerator containing the titular bird, a uniquely hibernating species which must be kept frozen until it is ready to revive. But the upheavals in Thorn’s neighbourhood have not ceased with the school’s sacking …

Though the societies in these books never truly came to life for me—I didn’t feel that there was sufficient depth, sufficient subtlety to the worldbuilding—Gilman nonetheless gives us plausibly complex and interesting characters, and trenchant problems for them to solve. They’re written in a clear and uncomplicated style which reveals several moments of genuine pathos in the lives of their respective protagonists. Forced to play favourites, I’d probably choose The Ice Owl over Arkfall, though Arkfall, with its biotechnological vehicles and ice-world setting, arguably adheres more faithfully to the requirements of hard SF than does The Ice Owl, which to my mind fudges it on the vexatious problem of interstellar travel. In Owl, humans are able to be transmitted between distant worlds as beams of light—essentially the same mechanism as the Star Trek transporter beams—while instantaneous communication between worlds is possible using a device called a ‘pepci’, which sounds similar to Le Guin’s ‘ansible’. I wasn’t really able to get my head around the notion that, while information could be instantaneously transferred across a multi-light-year gulf, a human encoded as a lightbeam signal—which must surely represent what is, at base, only a very large packet of information—is restricted to the slow crawl of lightspeed. (The same criticism would presumably apply also to Arkfall, which is set in the same universe as Owl, except that in Arkfall the issue of interstellar travel is never sufficiently backgrounded to reveal this particular sticking point; instead, the SF componentry centres on the intriguing Dawn-like application of biologically-inspired solutions to technological problems.) Nonetheless, The Ice Owl found favour for Pregaldin’s mysterious butterfly-wing portrait and for the busy interplay between the book’s several characters: though in each book the broad sense of the impending denouement is reasonably clearly foreshadowed, there’s more complication to Owl‘s unravelling than there is to Arkfall‘s.

In summation, I’d give Arkfall a qualified pass as hard SF, though I’d have to hold The Ice Owl back on that score. If equation-solving SF is what you’re after as reading matter, these probably aren’t for you. But they’re intriguing enough stories, in and of themselves: if you like Le Guin’s writing, you’ll probably enjoy these.

(This is the eighth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)




5 responses

9 07 2016
William van Oosten

Hi Simon, I am Bill, wondering where you find or how you choose which books to review ….
Interested that you have such a positive view of you world. So many don’t.

10 07 2016

Hi Bill,
I wouldn’t say I necessarily have a particularly positive view of the world … I’m fairly pessimistic by nature, which I think can be a useful survival trait.
Re where I find books to review: sometimes they’re things I find by chance (I’m a scrounger of bargain bins), sometimes they’re things I actively seek out, such as my current interest in Scandinavian crime novels and in female-authored hard SF. But (as seems to be a common complaint) I always seem to acquire books at a faster rate than I can read them, so my to-be-read pile has enough to keep me going for a year or so, at least.
Most of what I’ve posted lately have been reviews, but I don’t primarily see myself as a reviewer: my main interest is in writing, when I can find the time and the inspiration.
Good luck with your own endeavours …
Cheers, Simon

10 07 2016
William van Oosten

Re female HARD SF look up Patty Jansen

10 07 2016

Oh, I know Patty quite well. We were both members of the Andromeda Spaceways collective, back in the day. And I’ve read, and enjoyed, several pieces of her writing.

10 07 2016
William van Oosten

Cool! The world gets smaller by the day!!

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