sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes)September 2002
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Burning the Ice by Laura J. Mixon
Hardcover: ISBN 0312869037 PubDate Aug 2002
Review by Victoria McManus
544 pages List price $25.95  
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Burning the Ice is a sequel to Laura J. Mixon’s 1998 novel Proxies, set many years later.  Descendents of colonists who left Earth during the time of the previous novel are trying to terraform an icy world ironically named Brimstone while struggling with limited supplies and harsh conditions. Colonists spend most of their time wearing “livesuits” to protect them from their environment as well as allow for virtual interaction and retrieval of information.  They’ve built their own small forest, mostly of bamboo, and have a small, hardy Earth ecosystem of grasses and flowers as well as animals, plus extensive hydroponics to support themselves at a subsistence level.

Mixon has created an intricate social structure for the humans on Brimstone, all of whom are cloned from a limited set of founders.  Clones are made, for the most part, in male/female pairs, occasionally in triplets of single sex or otherwise, so each person has his or her vat mate/s for support and identical sets, staggered in age, to form a social unit.  Manda, the protagonist, is the sole unmatched clone on the planet because her vat-mate died as a fetus.  A person whose sole vatmate dies as an adult invariable commits suicide.  Her obsession is finding life on their barren world, perhaps because life outside of the clones groups is alone, as she is.  To this end, she uses marine-waldos and virtual visualizations to search for life beneath the ocean’s crust.

It’s a bit difficult at first to easily comprehend the verbal usages of the clones, for example, I/you and you/yourself.  Many of the vatmated pairs speak in tandem, not so much finishing each other’s sentences as sending phrases back and forth like a game of catch.  This sometimes made the novel
difficult reading, but eventually one gets used to it.

Manda is regarded as an oddity, and treated as one.  The other clones do sometimes attempt to take her aloneness into account, but it’s clear that they can never truly comprehend it.  She seems isolated from her clone group and from the colonists at large, but when disaster strikes, she turns out to need them emotionally, as they need her.  At one point, when researching the history of Brimstone’s colonization, she realizes she is looking at an image of a man who, genetically, is her grandfather; and she realizes that she has genetic parents and grandparents and all the rest.  The thought disturbs her, because she is, in truth, too much a part of the clones’ culture.

Sexual relationships, in this setting, are not needed for reproduction, but they are present as exo-bonds—relationships outside of one’s own clone group—and can be powerful political instruments.  Complex rituals are shown to seal these bonds, involving most adult members of the groups concerned. Exo-bonds are also shown to have distressing consequences, because they necessitate time away from one’s vatmate.

The culture Mixon has invented takes some time to comprehend when reading, because it is so complex, but once inevitable disaster strikes, the book takes off.  Political machinations, emotional conflicts, and the colonists’ desperation to survive all make for an exciting conclusion.

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