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Underground Reading: The Snow by Adam Roberts

The Snow - Adam RobertsThe Snow (2004) is an apocalyptic sci-fi novel by the ever-philosophical Adam Roberts.

Much to everyone's delight, snow starts falling all over the world. But as it piles up, the charm quickly wears off. And by the time the Earth is covered in three miles of packed snow, everyone is too dead to complain. 

Roberts follows the snowfall from start to finish - the early days of panic, the boredom and the pain of captivity and then the fledgling society that emerges on the other side. With only 150,000 survivors around the world, the human race is a very different entity (and a very cold one). The attempts to rebuild society are awkward - people must choose between looking forwards or finding someone to blame.

The Snow is an awkward fusion of two very different books. 

The first, which explores the snow's human impact, is terrific. I've always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic thrillers, and this is a good one: even the most mundane aspects of government become tricky when you're standing on top of a pile of powder. The power politics are well-developed, as are the various players - the close-minded general, the awkward revolutionary and the scheming wife. 

The novel's style, a collection of government papers, interviews and testimonials, gives this more impact. The Snow is a gathering of unreliable narrators. The reader has to work at deciphering what to believe and how the stories click together. Hard work, but rewarding.

Roberts also makes the snow's impact felt on the personal level. We understand what it is like to scrounge for food or cross a hundred-foot drift... even the joy of smoking a carefully-husbanded cigarette. 

The latter part of The Snow is another book entirely. For some perverse reason, the (slightly goofy) science-fiction origin of the snowfall is explained. Not only is this explanation unnecessary, but since it is bizarre, unanticipated, and completely out of left-field, it undermines the rest of the book. What was a Ballardian thriller about human beings in adverse circumstances suddenly transforms into ponderous retro pulp.

I highly recommend The Snow for its auspiciously apocalyptic beginning. It is beautifully written and presents a fascinating take on the downfall (and tenuous resurgence) of human civilization. I also recommend it as a case study on disappointing endings. It's a valuable lesson for all science fiction authors: sometimes humans are enough. 

Tube journeys: 1 (warm) afternoon on the beanbag
Rating: six feet of snow & a lukewarm cup of cocoa