The Long Winter by John Christopher
Fawcett Gold Medal, 1962
Price I paid: 50¢
THE LONG WINTER is the terrorizing story of what happens when a new Ice Age devastates the Northern Hemisphere, when civilization disappears into a voiceless polar night, when men and women turn into human wolf packs in their agonized struggle for survival…and when the only place left to run is filled with another kind of death.
I had to nab the Internet Speculative Fiction Database’s scan for this book’s cover because mine has gaping big holes on it from a price sticker removal gone awry. Frown emoticon.
Hoo boy, is this an interesting book, though. The back cover is an incredibly misleading pack of lies this time, completely denying the central premise of the book and making it look like it’s the story of some people trying to ride out the next ice age. That’s maybe a quarter of the truth. Yes, there is an ice age, and yes, people are trying to ride it out. The way they do it is not at all mentioned in the cover matter, nor is the boring and pointless soap opera element that set my teeth on edge for most of the novel.
So I turned to Google.
That search didn’t do me much good, but in the end I persevered and found out that friend of the blog and better-reviewer-than-I-am Joachim Boaz covered this novel back in 2012. I read his review and, sure enough, some understanding started to seep through my addled brain. Now comes the new challenge: How do I write about this book without plagiarizing?
The novel starts off about how I’d expected. The world has started getting colder. There’s a mention of a thing called the Fratellini Effect. Dr. Fratellini, who is not in this book, has found evidence that the sun is beginning to cycle down a little bit. It’s putting out less light and heat. It’s not much, and the author here shows that he has at least a competent understanding of how climate change works. The minor difference in solar output leads to a change in temperature of a few degrees, which in turn means that there’s a runaway chain reaction and England is now an icicle.
I jumped ahead a bit. England doesn’t freeze up right away. First we have to go through SOAP OPERA STUFF.
Enter our main character: Andrew Leedon. He, like most of the other characters, the author, and the story itself, is as English as Winston Churchill dressed like Lord Nelson doing a maypole dance on the banks of the Thames. Andrew works in telly, and at the beginning of the book he’s kicking around an idea for a story about this oncoming winter thing.
And then, enter David Cartwell, a lady’s man who works for Home Office. Somebody introduces Andrew and David and they become fast friends, drinking bitter at the pub with one another on a regular basis.
It doesn’t take long before we find out what else is happening on a regular basis: David is banging Andrew’s wife.
Yes, this is all very interesting and wonderful and, wait, no, I’M LYING I DON’T CARE
To finish up this part of the story: Andrew’s wife, Carol, leaves him for David, taking their two sons. Andrew ends up hanging out a lot with David’s ex(ish)-wife, Madeleine.
Meanwhile, England is freezing over. It snows a lot. It snows in the spring. It snows in the summer. Everything is looking pretty bad.
Part of what makes this book so damned English is that the wife-stealing and -swapping and all that nonsense doesn’t prevent everybody from being extremely cordial to one another. Stiff upper lip, eh?
Well, stiff upper lips get extremely tested as time goes on. Mine certainly did. The book started to deviate from what I was expecting at about…here.
See, David convinces Andrew and Madeleine to leave the country and go to Africa. Carol’s already left and taken the boys, and he’ll be down forthwith. They go. Things are terrible.
When Andrew and Madeleine first showed up in Nigeria, I didn’t know what to expect. I had an inkling, though, and I figure that’s what led me to judge this book as HELLA RACIST.
But, you know, racist in that classic English way.
Andrew and Madeleine have their money taken away from them (English money is no longer any good, thanks to the collapse of the government) and they end up living in a slum. Andrew can’t get a job (No whites need apply) and his one attempt to join the military is foiled when the recruiter demands a bribe/tip (called dash) for letting him join, which Andrew can’t pay.
Andrew’s ex-wife is working as a “social secretary” for a prominent Nigerian official, which is a nice coded way of saying “escort.” Madeleine finds a crappy job in a hospital, but before she finds that she’s told that her options are basically prostituting herself and that’s it.
And meanwhile there are crackdowns on whites being out on the street after dark, thanks to rumors and reports of their harassing and raping black African women.
Now, my feeling on the matter was something like haha, whitey finally gets what’s coming to him, but it seemed to me that this was supposed to be a shocking outrage to the reader of 1962.
Joachim’s review, which I suggest you read, made it more clear to me. This book is a satire, a sort of race-flip, where it’s made clear just how degrading and indefensible British colonialism was. A key fact is that this book was written only a year or two after Nigeria attained its independence from Britain.
I’m showing my privilege here, but there’s a lot I don’t know about this kind of thing. That’s probably why so much of it went over my head.
Things become a bit more clear when we’re reintroduced to a character we met briefly at the beginning of the book, a Nigerian named Abonitu. Andrew met Abonitu while he was still working in England. Abonitu was touring Andrew’s workplace and Andrew showed him some kindness, something that Abonitu didn’t forget. So now the tables have turned and it’s Abonitu’s turn to show kindness. He gets Andrew a job in television and an apartment that’s leagues better than the leaky shack he and Madeleine have been living in.
The satire becomes a little more clear when Abonitu tells Andrew his grand plan. The Nigerian government wants to send an expeditionary force to England in the hopes of setting up a colony there. He wants Andrew to come along and document the adventure.
Sure enough, they set out with a fleet of hovercraft. They stop off on one of the Channel islands and meet some resistance, mainly from racists who assume that Andrew is in charge because he’s white. There’s a little scrap and they escape and continue across the Channel and up the frozen Thames until they arrive in London.
The story starts to come to a close without much of a climax. They find out that London isn’t totally uninhabited. There are enough people there to set up a sort of defense. Andrew is sent to talk to the defenders―he’s the native, remember?―and they have a sort of parley. Andrew finds out that David is heading this ragtag group of people, defending what remains of England from any invaders. David has basically set himself up as a ruler of a tiny nation, and he’s not about to give it up.
Andrew decides to stay with him. Abonitu refuses to let him stay, but Andrew convinces him otherwise. He keeps most of the hovercraft, leaving Abonitu one to cram everybody into and get back home. There’s a bit about how England learns from its mistakes that felt a little moralistic and tacked on, and then Andrew hopes that when Abonitu returns, it’ll be as an ambassador and they’ll meet again as equals. Or something like that.
So that’s the book.
Even my realization that the book was a satire didn’t alleviate the fact that it was pretty problematic racially. To be fair, Andrew’s one of the few decent enough people, and most of the racism comes from others, but I spent a lot of this book thinking that it was going to become a black version of The Feminists.
Context is super important here. I was missing a great deal of that context. I had no idea that Nigeria attained its independence in 1960. To be honest, I probably couldn’t have told you it was a British colony. I knew about how Africa was divided among the various European states for a long time, and that colonialism was generally a bad thing, and that Cecil Rhodes was a dick, and so forth. Still, there’s a lot of detail there that I just didn’t know anything about.
To be fair to myself, I had no idea what I was getting into, either. I was expecting a story about how England froze over and people had to try to survive. Maybe they’d try to find a way to reverse it, or live with it, or whatever. I was expecting some science fiction. Maybe there’d be a scientist who finds a zeta-ray that he can shoot the sun with and turn it back on to full power. Or maybe they’d pump a bunch of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and use global warming to avert an ice age. Anything.
I didn’t expect the book to leave England.
Okay, now I see that the front cover uses the words “political satire,” but c’mon, none of the other phrases that cover uses―”science-fiction fantasy” and “suspense thriller”―were actually true, so why am I supposed to trust the cover on the other one? Am I supposed to say “one out of three ain’t bad” and leave it at that?
I didn’t even read that New York Times blurb in the first place.
And the back cover has a note from the Chicago Tribune that calls the book “appallingly plausible,” which just opens up a wonderful can of worms. Which part is so appallingly plausible? The ice age part, or the inversion of typical race relations?
Minus the soap opera wife swapping, I’d call this book a success. All that stuff with Carol and Madeleine and David and Andrew could have been nixed from the book and it wouldn’t have suffered one bit. In fact, it might have trimmed it up to the point where I wouldn’t have been distracted so much and I could actually figure out what this author was trying to say without casting about hoping that other reviewers would tell me what the crap was going on and whether or not I should be mad and why.
The book stands staunchly on its cultural context. As an outsider to that context, I missed a lot, but I’d say that readers of post-colonialism and that ilk would find this a fascinating work. Maybe pitch it to a college professor. Just don’t tell them it’s science fiction. Maybe call it something like “post-imperialist ecological non-realism literary satire.”
Those words all probably have alternate meanings in the world of literary criticism, so pick and choose as you will.
Note: I was an English major. I’m making fun of us, not you.
Anyway, this was a weird one and mostly a good one, even though I didn’t think so while I was reading it. I learned a lot from it, and that’s always a good thing.
Is this a book that made me slightly more woke? I think it did! I can recommend it on those terms. Just have Wikipedia handy.