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The Snow

by Adam Roberts

(Gollancz, £12.99, 297 pages, trade paperback, published 19August 2004. Gollancz, £6.99, 360 pages, paperback, August 2005.)

Review by Stephen Palmer

In Adam Roberts' latest novel, snow begins falling and it doesn't stop. For days, cover scanit snows. The main character, a young Indian woman called Tira, is one of the very few who survive, at first by shacking up with a grouchy old man, then, when he dies, by being rescued by the Americans ...

Hang on! The Americans?

Well, this isn't your average post-apocalypse novel. It's far less about the nuts and bolts of survival and more about the people who survive and how they organise themselves. It's also about the lies that get told about the cause of the snow, how individuals and then groups manipulate that knowledge, and how other people get annoyed by the uncertainty created. For, once Tira is rescued she realises that from her perspective, living in an artificial city five miles high upon the snow, there are a number of explanations as to why six billion people died. Perhaps it was the Russians. Perhaps it was quantum wormholes ... or something ... and so on.

Whilst the visual element of the novel is superbly conceived -- whiteness, and all that stands for -- and while the characters are compelling and well-drawn, the novel does suffer from a problem. Not knowing exactly what is going on does make for a slightly frustrating read; and although this uncertainty is at the core of the book -- not least during a brilliant final section -- it means the heart of the book is constantly in opposition with the reader. Unfortunately, there isn't really any way around this problem. Writers who wish to present uncertainty (I include myself!) have to be very careful how they present their material to the reader.

To take another example, parts of this novel are censored by the author. Names (given as a list at the end of the book) are initially offered as [Blank]. All very accurate and atmospheric, but incredibly annoying after a few pages. And that final list was a real kick in the teeth!

And then there are the [blank]s. Brought in towards the end of the book, they turn out to be a probable explanation for the snow, though in an unexpected way.

So. Snow, Americans, lies, [blank]s ... all entertaining and readable. The most jarring aspect is a rather lame introduction of racism -- coloured skin in opposition to whiteness. It's meant to work on a symbolic level, but it doesn't. All in all this is a pretty weird book. I've never read anything quite like it -- which has got to be a good thing. We need more original stuff. I'd say it works 80%. I loved the exhilarating ideas, the scenario, the abstract concepts -- that whiteness! -- but I wasn't so keen on the slightly ham-fisted portrayal of reactionary men.

Reading this novel is the equivalent of tobogganing semi-strapped-in down the Cresta Run. Read it if you want to take a ride.

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