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In literature, nothing dates like tomorrow. The hypothetical readers of the late 21st century may look back on the Armageddon fixation of some of today’s dystopic fiction with an indulgent smile. But they may also be struck by how much of the political and physical landscape they recognise.
That the radically altered world on the horizon has already been envisaged by science presents a challenge to fiction writers conjuring humankind’s future: in an era of melting ice caps and military contingency plans, the issue is no longer what we can imagine; it is what we can’t.
The future evoked in The Country of Ice Cream Star, the resonant epic by Sandra Newman (right), is one you would not wish on your worst enemy, let alone your great-grandchildren. Set in an exotically feral Massachusetts, the novel unashamedly deploys many of the genre’s recent Young Adult tropes: the mythology and propaganda of warring factions; a tomboy protagonist with romantic dilemmas; ruined cityscapes; graphic violence.
But what sets The Country of Ice Cream Star apart from its rivals is the extraordinary, blistering insistence of its language. With a deep bow to Russell Hoban’s 1980 classic Riddley Walker, the novel starts in take-it-or-leave-it mode and resolutely stays there. The narrator-heroine, Ice Cream Fifteen Star, introduces her child tribe, the Sengles, as “a tarry sort, we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.”
The novel is confident enough not to offer a glossary for words like bone, foo, sho, animose, vally, uggety, wolfen, and gratty, so we must take Ice Cream as we find her – or tag along a few steps behind, craving explanation like the under-10s of her extended, patched-together family. But Newman’s strategy is well judged: within a page or two, the reader has either given up or become sufficiently intrigued to stick with it. As the momentum builds, scene by assured scene, a raw, addictive lyricism develops. A wounded warrior “watch on this with face besweaten. He skinny from his sickness, and his face look skullish dread. He look like he belong to this hell underworld. Can see he known what he will find; he seen this in his hatred dreams … “
At more than 600 pages, such prose may sound like a demanding read. And in the very best sense, it is. Time and again I found myself surprised into revisiting a sentence or exchange of dialogue – first to grasp it thoroughly, and then to delight in it again.
While the glittering linguistic shackles slow the reading process, the narrative still manages to unfold at rampaging speed. An epidemic has wiped out most of Ice Cream’s American ancestors. The surviving generations inherit a form of the disease called “posies”, which kills them by the time they are 20, leaving the northeast coast populated by children so tough it hurts. A less predictable but equally sinister threat comes from the tall, shadowy marauders known as “roos”, who swoop them up and transform them with industrial ruthlessness – and drugs – into child soldiers and sex slaves.
When Ice Cream’s older brother Driver shows symptoms of posies, and a captured roo floats the notion of medical salvation, she recruits the roo’s help to embark on an apparently impossible quest to track down the cure. The blood-soaked journey takes her to New York, where she is kidnapped by a bonkers neo-Catholic cult that installs her as its unvirginal and rebellious Madonna. But the holy phase is not to last. Soon, the brave, proud, rude, emotional Ice Cream is pushing on to booby-trapped Washington with semi-suicidal doggedness. An explosive climax is on the cards – and the novel duly delivers.
While the complex intertribal politics occasionally veer towards incomprehensibility, and the reinvented Vatican regime strains credulity, Ice Cream’s gruelling story is ultimately potent, stimulating and cathartic enough to scotch the cavils. By the last page I was emotionally battered but euphoric: the book had held me so effectively hostage that I felt I had Stockholm syndrome.
Speculative fiction will never save the world, but its ability to posit future scenarios has given it an unprecedented urgency. Those who complain that “tomorrow is so yesterday” would do well to read The Country of Ice Cream Star and consider next week.