He was going to be difficult to investigate, though. Already she had tabulated the points his dossier revealed as negative; he was a maverick in his field rather than well accepted and respected by his peers, he was not always very consistent in his attitudes, his operation was so small-scale it suggested he thought on a small scale, and there was a distinct possibility that he was riddled with Oedipal guilts. Dr. Carriol did not think highly of the internal resources of men in their thirties who still lived with Mother and to all intents and purposes had never embarked upon a sexual encounter with man or woman. Like the rest of the world, she found self-imposed celibacy a great deal harder to understand than any alternative sexual state, including the basest perversions; and this in spite of the fact that she was herself a frigid woman. The strength to resist one’s primal urges was far more suspect than the weakness of succumbing to them or avoiding them. For he didn’t have the eyes of a cold or an unfeeling man...
Author: Colleen McCullough
Synopsis: In the year 2032, another ice age advances upon the Earth, driving North Americans further south every year. Unhandsome but charismatic Dr. Joshua Christian is more than happy helping the people of his dying Connecticut town overcome their depression, which is induced by lengthening winters, a one-child policy, and constant change. But the depression isn’t limited to the town of Holloman, and government think tank leader Judith Carriol wants to see him bring his message to the world.
Notes: The difficulty in reading a 1985 sci-fi is that the turn of the millenium was such a big mythic deal leading up to it—but now that we’re twelve years in, it’s just not that different from the nineties. Which were different from the eighties primarily in having smaller hairdos and less neon and not quite so much disco.
That is to say, in 1985 it was comparatively believable that there might be an ice age early in the new millenium. Who knew what that dreaded ozone hole, caused by trillions of cans of hair spray, might do? Instead, people nowadays talk of global warming, which is hardly something Colleen McCullough could have predicted. But for the long-term believability of her novel, she probably would have been better off not setting a date.
The novel is more than mere dystopian setting, however, and its primary focus is on retelling the gospel narrative after removing all definition. No one in the book carries a subtle name: not Joshua Christian, not his brothers Andrew and James or his sisters Mary and Martha (whose personalities are reversed) and Miriam, not Operation Search genius Moshe Chasen, and not Judith Carriol (think about it.) McCullough knows she isn’t being subtle; she goes so far as to flaunt it, referring to Dr. Christian’s ideas as “the Christian myth” and “the Christian philosophy”.
Which myth, by the bye, is rather shy of being theologically Christian. It’s a call to believe in God even if you cannot accept any of the religions available, and to stand up and save yourself. Make up your own idea of God, but don’t waste your love on someone so perfect and all-encompassing; love your fellow man instead. It’s the reverse—in one sense, at least—of Christian charity, which at its zenith is love so wholly given to a very specific God that it necessarily results in perfect and complete love for man.
To be very honest, I found the overt allegorizing a challenge to interpret. McCullough may have been attempting to show the frailty of humanism and unspecific spiritualism, but then she may also have been out to question the validity of messianic religion in general and Christianity in particular. Or perhaps she had no point except to explore, psychologically, the effects of messianism upon a human and imperfect messiah. Whatever the case, the funhouse-mirror imaging of Christ’s passion made for an uncomfortable and confusing read. Which, to be fair, was possibly as intended.
Dr. Christian and Dr. Carriol both engender some sympathy in the reader, but the former reads as too superhuman and the latter as too coldly ambitious to win hearts entirely. Most of the other characters are also a mix of likable and not-so-much. Interactions between the characters tended to be overly dramatic; the two consistently believable emotions in the story were the twin resentments against long winters and the one-child policy. The latter, Dr. Christian treats as necessary, but makes some stirring statements in understanding of the suffering it causes.
The story doesn’t hide the fact that it’s headed in a generally tragic direction, which took me by surprise considering the just-shy-of-romance-novel cover (and there’s nothing romantic about the tale itself). The ending leaves a number of untied and threatening plot threads. Whether McCullough intended a sequel, I couldn't say, but none exists as far as I know.
Dystopian fiction by nature portrays a bleak and brutal world, and no law states that a bleak book must offer hope somewhere. Also, McCullough is a talented author who may well have had something very important to say that I entirely missed. But though the story kept me engaged with both suspense and symbolism, I finished it without knowing what to make of it, and the ending unfortunately circumvented my desire to read it again and find out.
Recommendation: Read it if you want to see what the gospel narrative might have been like, had it lacked a named and personal God.