Monday, April 03, 2017

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin


The Ice Trilogy (Bro/Ice/23,000), published by New York Review Books in 2011, is by turns intriguing and exhausting.  The overarching story, of pure celestial essences, the 23,000 creators of the physical universe, who have become trapped in their own material creation is, of course, gnostic in its essence (as was Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth), but the massive (694 pages) length of the combined trilogy and the numbing repetition of essential actions – which, I suppose, are illustrative of life itself – serve to dull both the mind and soul.

It is a conspiracy novel par excellence, as the liberated essences search out and awaken their companions, entrapped within impermanent human shells, by means of bone-crushing blows to the sternum with heavy ice hammers. The origin of this curious practice goes back to a scientific expedition to Siberia  to investigate the site of the Tunguska event. Alexander Snegirev, born June 30, 1908, the son of a wealthy Russian sugar producer whose family had been scattered and destroyed by the Revolution (the early pages, told as a first person narrative, carry the dim echo of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory) signs up for the expedition at the urging of a girl he meets at university.  A lost, drifting sort of youth, Alexander becomes mysteriously invigorated as he approaches the site.  He discovers - or rather is led to - a huge mass of ice embedded in the swampy permafrost, and undergoes a radical change when he slams his naked chest into the ice and his true essence surfaces.  As unremitting as any biological impulse, the ice “speaks” to him, awakening his heart (in the words of the novel), and his humanity falls away.  The narrative grows more alien and single-minded, as the human race becomes more and more inconsequential to the young man, now known by his true (and unfortunate) name of “Bro”.  He sets fire to the expedition encampment before he sets out, still naked, across the tundra.  He eventually finds, out on the desolate steppe, a girl who will share his mission.  After Bro liberates her, she is known as “Fer” and together they embark on a widening scheme of seeking out, by psychic means, and building a secret society of liberated beings. As the society grows, human beings come to be known to them simply as meat machines, to be despised for their gross and perishable natures, hidden from, and manipulated towards the higher end. 
The Brotherhood, in a course of history intertwined with that of 20th century Russia, grows in numbers, harvests their brethren (under cover of the Holocaust, at one point), and establish a shady multinational corporation - again mirroring Tevis - by means of which they manufacture and deploy the ice hammers, which must be assembled and used under strictly proscribed procedures.  The symbol of the hammer in relation to Soviet Russia cannot be mistaken. 
As the Second World War transitions to the Stalinist twilight, the Kruschev era, and gradually on to post-Glasnost Russia, the Brotherhood becomes less discriminating in their methods:  blond and blue-eyed humans, the apparently preferred host for the celestial entities, are abducted and battered with the ice hammers in the hopes of liberating a few more of the 23,000.  The narrative begins to focus more on the stories of individual humans, with an emphasis on the seedy and criminal, as they become awakened to their higher selves.  The trappings of the Brotherhood become more cultish, with expensive surroundings, evoking on one hand the higher echelons of Scientology and on the other the sordidness of the Jonestown massacre.  There is also a growing group of former victims, seeming paranoiacs who swap stories and piece together a picture of a vast conspiracy.
As the final ascension, by necessity, must involve each and every one of the 23,000, there is a frenzy of activity as the magic number is approached.  There are secret Chinese slave labor facilities manufacturing the hammers from the original Tunguska ice, emphasizing the divide between the Brotherhood, their accomplices, and the downtrodden workers.  One moves towards the end of the book wondering if the great event will even take place, or if the comforts of power and wealth, even in the material realm, will be too much of a temptation, but the organization appears to remain steadfast in its determination to gain escape velocity and leave the shackles of Earth, their most deficient creation, behind. 
In the end, there are perplexities remaining.  One of the necessary consequences of the ascension appears not to have occurred, casting doubt on the reality and effectiveness of the enterprise as a whole.  I’d have to say the finale, while unexpected, is a bit of a letdown after such a long and challenging read.  It’s up to the individual reader to determine if it was worth the effort.


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