Book review: La Nuit des Temps, by René Barjavel

Well, that was interesting. I finished reading La Nuit des Temps (which I gather was translated into English as ‘The Ice People’) yesterday.

It’s… interesting. Strange. Surprisingly good in places, surprisingly difficult to take seriously in others. I’m not sure if the latter is because of the way it has dated (the Cold War atmosphere was pretty all-pervasive), or because there were certain cliché elements, or because I was reading in a foreign language and was that little bit more removed from the text. But while much of the book was so very predictable in certain respects, the two sudden twists at the ending did manage to catch me by surprise – especially the second – and made me rather happy in a sort of Shakespearean way. Though it must be admitted that much of my enjoyment of this book came from the sheer preposterousness of certain minor elements of the story.

I don’t know how much I can or should spoil this. I mean, it was written in 1967 and in French, so those of you who are likely to read it probably have already. And the course of the first 3/4 of the novel was so extremely predictable (not bad, mind you, just that there are certain patterns that lead to certain other patterns, and even if you are fairly unfamiliar with the tropes, some things you can’t miss. I think I’ll put everything behind an LJ-cut just in case, but really, if you’ve read a lot of 1960s and 1970s science fiction, I doubt there will be many surprises – and if I discuss the twists at the end, I’ll be sure to warn you first…

The basic premise is that scientists surveying the French-owned section of Antarctica with their shiny new equipment for detecting what is deeply buried beneath the ice find evidence of a previous civilisation. The depth at which it is buried suggests that it is 900,000 years old, and once they start excavating it becomes clear that it was a very advanced civilisation indeed.

Do I even have to tell you what became of this civilisation and how it was destroyed? It turns out there was another, enemy civilisation, in what is now America (though apparently it didn’t have that big bite taken out of it back then), with whom they had long at war, though mostly they were glaring at each other across the moon (incidentally, the moon was fertile and farmlike and crater free, and not only was Mars fertile and farmlike, it turns out that it is also the homeland of the world’s black population. I’m not even going to touch that one. Did I mention that the casual racism of this book was almost as breathtaking as its off-hand sexism?). And yes, having H-bombed each other they went one better and eventually used a Solar Bomb to completely annihilate their enemies, which threw the world off its axis and made the temperate zones frozen and vice versa.

We learn this from one of the two survivors, who has been encased in oxygen at absolute zero and kept in suspended animation for all these millennia.

She is, of course, supremely beautiful (naturally, while the male of the breeding pair was chosen for his intelligence and knowledge, she was chosen for her beauty and health, with intelligence taking a poor third place. Don’t get me started.), and the narrator falls in love with her – but she is utterly, all-consumingly in love with her lover from 900,000 years ago – who is not, of course, the man in the suspended animation box.

So we have this fable in which all the scientists of the world have managed to overcome their political differences to work together to learn as much as they can about this and disseminate the knowledge equally to everyone so that nobody benefits at the expense of others – but of course their countries are less sure about this and want to be sole owners of the formula which will allow them to generate all life’s necessities out of nothing. Cue much sneaking around with spies and evil plans and attempted assassinations and so forth which didn’t interest me much and which I suspect didn’t interest the author that much either, except insofar as it advanced his agenda. To be fair, I quite liked that particular agenda, but nobody could call it subtle.

The book would have had a very different ending, incidentally, if email had been invented. But I digress.

There were things I really liked about this. I liked the way Gondawa was originally portrayed as an utterly idyllic, perfect society, but as the plot progressed it became clear that the state’s control over the individual was pretty absolute. Free will only goes so far, and in the end there is conscription of every possible kind – Elea does not choose to go into suspended animation, and indeed fights desperately to avoid it. I liked the way, since apparently it was necessary for the Great Computer to match everyone up with their soulmate at the age of seven (and isn’t that a mark of the times? I can’t think of many science fiction authors of today who would create a computer so all-knowing, or a study of psychology so infallible, and I know even fewer science fiction readers who would believe in these things if they did), not all these soulmate matches are absolutely wonderful. Often, apparently, it’s a matter of ‘these people are not particularly happy, but they would be much less happy apart’. Some people can’t be matched at all. And I did like the tension between the need to preserve the human race at all costs and the desire to have a choice in the matter. I also liked the scientists working together and the idealism of a universal declaration of common humanity.

And I liked that the two survivors didn’t die of measles, which I absolutely expected to happen from the first page of the book. I won’t tell you what did become of them unless you ask very nicely in the comments, but it wasn’t measles.

On the other hand, given that almost every nation except Australia provided characters and scientists to this book, it seems a little unfair to single Australia out not merely for a measles epidemic but also for a mushroom cloud. Nobody else gets this treament. Also, I am inclined to theorise that our narrator was not, as he believes, delayed in Sydney by visa issues, by customs / quarantine ones. This is Australia, after all.

And then there is the sexism. Oh, my. We will gloss over the fact that the fat, unappealing, patronising american scientist ends up with the beautiful, brilliant soviet scientist, because by the end of the book he had actually become rather more worthwhile and much less patronising, so one can see what she sees in him. But as for Eléa – I was torn between fury at the patronising way in which she was treated and irritation at the self-centred, immature way in which she frequently acted. She had one priority, one interest, one concern in her mind, and nothing else mattered – and not just in the modern day, where it would be understandable that she would be divorced from the world, but also in her life in the past. On the other hand, all the characters, without exception, tended to treat her as though she couldn’t make rational decisions. She was, adored, protected, patronised, and, in short, not treated in a way that is likely to turn anyone into a mature human being. Interestingly, everyone acknowledged her intelligence and resourcefulness – the issue was that it was totally focused on her one goal – to remain with her lover – regardless of anything else that was going on. Her lover, while portrayed as equally in love with her, appeared to have much more awareness of the world and realities outside their relationship.

This was all very irritating. Though I don’t know that it was intended that way; in a way, it is Eléa who has the final victory in the book. Sort of.

Also, I’m not sure that male science fiction writers who are more interested in getting their point across than in character development should be allowed to write sex scenes from the female point of view. Though, to be fair, I imagine female writers who are more interested in the politics than the character would do equally well to avoid sex scenes from the male viewpoint. However, that was not the issue on this particular occasion.

This review is becoming increasingly incoherent, so I think I shall stop here. I did find it an interesting read, perhaps most of all because of how dated it was. As a historical document, it was fascinating. And speaking of which, I do think it’s pretty entertaining when the author has to stop the book halfway through to explain in a rather irritable footnote that he wrote this book in 1966-1967, before the student riots in Paris, and he did not change a word after this time, and so the fact that he has rioting students is completely coincidental, thank you very much.

I don’t think 1960s science fiction is a genre I’m going to spend much time in, but I think I may have to take AdorableFrenchRA up on his offer of lending me more books by this author (apparently the other one he has is even more political – the mind boggles. And the blood, almost certainly, boils). I do have to give him credit, incidentally, for taking my intense amusement at all the Imminent Nuclear War tropes in good part… I’d really forgotten what this sort of Cold War science fiction was like, if I ever knew. But I’m too curious for my own good, and I think I may need to read more…

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