Monday, February 21, 2011

Ice, Ice, and More Ice

Several days ago, I watched a film about a future ice age and its effect on civilization. That reminded me of a novel I had read several weeks ago about a future ice age. The thought occurred to me that I had a novel and a film about the same topic. Now I needed a poem. Of course, Robert Frost's poem immediately came to mind.

The poem is "Fire and Ice." The film is Quintet and the novel is Ice and Iron.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The question seems to be whether the sun will go nova and destroy the earth or will it just slowly die out and the earth slowly freezes. However, Frost, as usual, introduces a personal element here, his own emotional states of desire and hate. In the novel and the film, it is the latter situation that prevails.


Quintet (1979): a film directed by Robert Altman and starring Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, and Bibi Andersson.

The planet is in the grip of an ice age. It is never specified that this is Earth, but the characters' names certainly suggest that. Paul Newman is Essex, Vittorio Gassman is St. Christopher, Ferando Rey is Grigor, and Bibi Andersson is Ambrosia. And that goose seen early in the film certainly looks very earthlike.

The film open in what appears to be in the Arctic or Antarctic--two people, Essex (Paul Newman) and his wife? Livia are traveling on foot. They are returning to the City, which Essex had left a decade or more ago. Upon reaching the City, Essex finds his brother, Francha, with some friends. Livia is greeted very warmly, even though she is a stranger, because she is pregnant. No child has been born in the City for years, for the inhabitants don't see much reason for trying to keep the race going. The ice will eventually destroy the City in a few years. In fact, throughout the film one could hear the ice cracking and creaking and groaning as it inched forward.

Shortly after their arrival, Francha, his friends, and Livia are killed, while Essex is out buying some food. Essex's goal now is to discover who killed them and why. Before long Essex solves the mystery: it is a game. The people of the city are obsessed with a board game called Quintet. It is played with six people. Initially five people begin the front game in which they roll dice and move around a board. If they land on a space occupied by another player, that player is "killed" or removed from the game. After four of the players have been removed, the sixth player now enters the game, and the two try to remove each other. The winner, of course, is the last player.

Some people find that this isn't absorbing or exciting enough. After all, there is no reason to go on living; eventually all will die, probably in a few years. So, some have developed a variant of the game. Putting one's life at risk in the game is the only thing that keeps them going. Those who wish to play are notified that that game is on. Five players will then try to kill each other. When one is left, the sixth player then enters the game and the two then go at each other. Francha was a player; that was why he died. However, the player who took him out violated the rules by killing the others.

Essex then takes the identification of one of the dead players and searches for the one who killed his brother, wife, and the others. At first, since they know he's an impostor and doesn't know what is going on, they ignore him. However, once he does find out, the moderator then changes his status to "active" and now Newman has to defend himself or die. Newman's search for the killer now becomes a struggle for his own survival.

Numerous other stories and films have appeared with a similar plot, so that really wasn't the most interesting part of the film. The most interesting aspect was the setting. The film was shot on the island that was the site of the World's Fair in Montreal in 1967, frequently referred to as Expo 67.

The film was shot ten years later. The site had been ignored and was quite dilapidated, just perfect for a film set in a city that was slowly being destroyed by snow, ice, and cold weather. The temperatures were below zero during most of the shooting, and every day a crew went out and watered down the parts of the set that were being used that day. At those low temperatures the water quickly froze. The cast and crew spent considerable time freezing in those low temperatures and slipping and falling on the ice. Even indoors, it was so cold one could see the breath of the actors as they spoke.

Overall Reaction: I thought it was an interesting film. The plot and setting was sufficient to keep me interested, and Paul Newman was Paul Newman. The environment was the real star, and I think I'm going to get it again in July or August--the perfect film for summer in Tucson.


The novel is Ice and Iron (1974) and was written by Wilson Tucker (1914-2006). It's a combination post-catastrophe and time travel novel. Tucker provides two narratives, but focuses mainly on one, the story line with the scientists who are studying the oncoming glaciers in the northern US, sometime, I think, during the 21st century. In the first narrative, Billings, Montana, has just been abandoned to the oncoming glacier. The second narrative, really consisting mainly of brief glimpses, takes place sometime in the future, during the period when the glacial period is ending, and the world is warming up once again.

Tucker weaves into the story the strange occurrences of various objects falling from an empty sky--fish, frogs, dirt, etc. Charles Fort wrote at least one book detailing such bizarre happenings. Tucker plays on this and adds the appearance of several humans who suddenly appear on the ice field, seemingly having fallen from the sky. This is the part that time travel plays a role. It's not clear as to how the people from the future have developed time travel, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Tucker is playing a game with a time travel paradox here, one that I had read in a short story long ago.

To be brief, in the first narrative, Canadians and US citizens are moving south to the equator. In the second narrative, we get glimpses of a civilization that is now expanding northward, following the retreating glaciers.

One interesting part of the novel is the mention of a favorite writer of mine, one whom I've quoted here several times: Loren Eiseley. The scientists in the first narrative are discussing the discovery of the artifacts from the future and trying to decide if there is some link there between them and the glaciation. One of the characters then says:

"'Eiseley said that catastrophe breeds discovery. he had observed that significant changes may occur in a time of catastrophe; he believed that early man discovered and first used fire during the previous glaciation, that primitive man moved out of the tropics and followed the melting ice sheets northward carrying fire with him, 'Supporting evidence to that theory was found in 'Asian caves about a century ago. The theory seems to be valid.'

Eiseley is referred to several times in the book, mostly on this topic. One of my future projects is to find out if he really did write this and where it might be found.

Overall Reaction: an enjoyable and fast read.


  1. Interesting read I must say. I work in a library and I'm thinking of ordering a copy of this novel. Cheers, Fred

  2. Freddo,

    I suspect it's out of print by now. I hope you find a copy and enjoy.