The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock
I don’t think Michael Moorcock has ever really written anything purely conventional, which is part of what makes The Ice Schooner ultimately so frustrating. There’s so much promise there, as you get a sense of what he’s trying to do and the expectations he’s subverting, that when the whole thing sputters to a close it feels like such a waste.
Konrad Arflane is a man out of time, but just how far out of time is not immediately clear. Arflane is a captain without a ship, in a frozen world with no water. Ships sail on runners over the frozen ground between the eight cities occupying the frozen plateau of the Mato Grosso (western Brazil), competing for commerce and hunting the land whales that roam freely. Arflane is out alone, looking for a place to die, when he stumbles across a dying man on the ice and, despite his better judgment, rescues him and returns him to his city. Arflane allows himself to be dragged into fulfilling the dying man’s quest: a journey to the fabled, far-off city of New York, whose fabled towers are said to still jut out from the global ice pack. Think Waterworld plus The Day After Tomorrow, only not stupid.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Moorcock is playing with Moby Dick here. In case it wasn’t clear enough, Queequeg himself shows up early on (thinly disguised and renamed) with his harpoon and makes the comparison immediately obvious. The subversion I mentioned is more subtle: there’s whales around, all right, but Arflane doesn’t care because he’s not a whaler. He’s chasing something else: the Ice Mother, whose frozen court is supposed to be located in New York. Arflane is a severely orthodox man: there is evidence, far away, that the ice is starting to melt and expose both soil and open water, but Arflane is positive that the Ice Mother would never allow such a thing. The world is frozen, always as been, and always will be, forever amen, and if he has to find the Ice Mother himself to prove this, he will, to hell with such things as observation and deduction. He doesn’t trust his senses, or anyone else’s, when they conflict with Holy Scripture, and he’s obnoxiously arrogant in his blind faith. This, combined with his brooding introspection and hair-trigger temper, makes it very difficult to find him sympathetic, in much the same way as with Moorcock’s more famous Elric of Melnibone.
Moorcock also inserts a love interest, but where one might expect this to be a calming influence on Arflane, Moorcock intends just the opposite. Everything seems to go wrong every time the two lovers are together, and indeed much of the friction between the major characters revolves around the doomed, forbidden relationship.
Unfortunately, and frustratingly, everything goes off the rails at the very end of the story. I can’t describe exactly why without spoilers, but Moorcock is far too talented a writer to depend on a deus ex machina ending, and I have to wonder why he chose to resort to one here. Ultimately, said ending takes what could have been an interesting counterpoint to Melville’s masterpiece and leaves it simply another bit of slightly-better-than-generic postapocalyptic storytelling, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable in the end.