Book Review: Time of the Great Freeze, Robert Silverberg (1964)

(Harry Schaare’s cover for the 1966 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Silverberg’s young adult (juvenile) science fiction novel Time of the Great Freeze (1964) is a by the numbers with few extra frills pulp adventure with a time-worn but still seductive premise: underground cities!  Unlike Heinlein’s best juvenile sci-fi works (Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, etc), Silverberg’s work fails to conjure the same wonder.  Silverberg’s portrayal of his youthful hero is dull even by 50s/60s juvenile standards — he fails to exude the biggest character trait of the genre, vibrant youthful vigor.  Yes he’s smart, does some judo moves, gets over friends’ deaths in a heartbeat, and is mentally tough but unfortunately is completely interchangeable with the other characters.  Instead of a defining young adult hero striving against the world with a few friends, a morass of seven interchangeable characters both young and old trek across the glaciers with little difficulty and a few plot demanding deaths.

Brief Plot Summary

The years is 2650 A. D.  Three hundred and fifty years earlier a New Ice Age covered large portions of the globe with ice.  Most people trekked south or died as food ran out and towns were overcome.  Those that remained in New York and the other great cities of America were able to construct underground cities before the ice covered them over.  The societies underground have become increasingly isolated and insular with repressive governments.  Food comes from hydroponics facilities and nuclear reactors provide the heat and energy.  The cities regulate births inorder to control population due to the limited resources at hand.  Sadly, Silverberg devotes only a few pages to the life in underground New York — the most interesting concept in the book.  And, there’s news that the ice might be slowly melting!

The narrative follows a group of characters, and our young interchangeable hero Jim, who have made radio contact with London, also an underground city.  The group is soon aprehended by New York’s authorities and after a shame trial the aged mayor sentences them to expulsion.  Fortunately, they were planning an expedition to the surface anyway to make contact with London.  Unfortunately, they have only 12 hours to prepare before they are kicked out of the city.  Due to the time constant they still manage to deck out their expedition perfectly with powered sleds, weapons, food, everything!  Yes, a gigantic plot hole.  At NO point in the narrative do the intrepid explorers realize that they forgot something, or need  particular tool, etc.  After 300+ years underground I suspect most societies would completely forget how to equipped a trans-Antarctic sort of expedition!

Regardless, our heroes encounter a variety of challenges on their way to make contact with London including primitive inland societies (remnants of peoples who didn’t go underground and didn’t journey south) which wander the ice hunting animals, fierce sea peoples (think vikings), dangerous animals, brittle ice, and the like.

Final Thoughts

The most lackluster aspect of the book is Silverberg’s brief discussion of the city.  A few more chapters on our hero’s life underground would have set the scene and would pique the reader’s interest.  Instead, the speed at which they are exiled reduces underground  New York’s wonder.  By far the most wonder inducing aspect of the novel is Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1980 edition below — thankfully, the edition I own.

The interchangeable nature of the characters (Silverberg does try to differentiate but they’re all heroic figures) weakens the effort.  A few weaklings who have trouble with the trek, a few with less mental strength than Jim, a few who miss life in the city etc would have made the expedition and character interactions much more realistic and engaging.

Only for fans of 50s/60s juvenile sci-fi, underground cities in science fiction, pulp adventure, and Silverberg completests like myself.  This is in no way Silverberg’s best pre-Thorns (1967) novel as some claim.  It’s an average but fun romp you’ll finish in a few hours.

(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1980 edition)

(Thomas Kidd’s cover for the 1988 edition)

(Brinton Turkle’s cover for the 1964 edition)

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Time of the Great Freeze, Robert Silverberg (1964)

  1. Have you heard of Dmitri Glukhovsky? He wrote a book More recently about a similar young hero who leaves an underground city to ward off an army of mutants. Theres no massive ice age, but it is in Russia. Anyway, it has a really cool plotline, and most of the game is either spent battling Postapocalypse Nazis or creeping through haunted Metro tunnels. Its called Metro 2033, it’s been adapted into a video game as well (new one is coming out soon!!!).

    • No, I have not. Does not sound like my cup of tea — I generally prefer sci-fi from the 40s-late 70s. I haven’t read any new stuff in years. Thanks for the comment! Thanks for visiting!

      • It’s a frequent sci-fi trope and also in super early fantasy-esque works from as far back as the 18th century — “Niels Klim’s journey under the ground being a narrative of his wonderful descent to the subterranean lands; together with an account of the sensible animals and trees inhabiting the planet Nazar and the Firmament'” (1741) comes to mind — what a title, right? haha

        • At one point a few years back I did read a lot of modern sci-fi, I’ve read at least 40 of the Hugo winners for best novel for example — most of the 80s and 90s and 2000 sci-fi included (except for the last few years). I’ve just found the older works so much more appealing. I’m generally uninterested in sci-fi with a heavy technology focus — much more interested in social science fiction, especially some of the more radical works, hence — 60s and 70s for obvious reasons. And as a historian, I’m fascinated with the environment from which 60s sci-fi emerged from — thus, 40s/50s.

  2. That is too bad, especially since all the covers look so fun. It is hard when you read something like a Heinlein juvenile and even all these years later it evokes such a strong sense of wonder. So many other works from the same era end up paling in comparison when you get that kind of connection.

    • Yup, I felt uneasy reviewing this work because I know how different it was reading juvenile works when I was 13/14! But regardless, the best YA sci-ci still evokes the sense of wonder — although perhaps not as poignantly.

  3. One of my favorite SF novels while growing up (right in the sweet spot for its target audience), though I suspect today I’d be disappointed on reread. My library had the Turkle cover, above, so that’s damned evocative.

    A contemporary book with “Underground City! (and why, and what’s life like, and what happens when you escape)” is “Wool” by Hugh Howey.

  4. I think that I read this book about a half dozen times growing up in my early teens, along with Andre Norton’s “Galactic Derelict”, Silverberg’s “Conquerors In The Darkness”, and Robert Heinlein’s “Farmer In The Sky”. But, go figure, I like a lot of Robert Moore Williams’ forties fictions that I’ve recently read. We dis/like what we like for many reasons, most other than any stated levels of quality by literary critics.

    • I probably would have enjoyed it as a kid as I stated to other commentors. The nostalgic power of such texts does not really come back when I read them now…. Who knows, perhaps as I age I’ll regain a taste for them.

  5. After attending a book-fair in elementary school and spotting that jet-powered sled on the book’s cover – I had to possess it!
    However, after tracking down a copy a lifetime later, it just wasn’t the same…
    Of course, Silverberg was aiming for a juvenile audience.

    • Thanks for stopping by! One of the reasons I categorically refuse to reread the books of my youth (mostly fantasy) — at least at this point in my life.

      Many of Silverberg’s books do have some staying power. I thoroughly enjoyed many of his more “mature” 60s and 70s novels — Dying Inside, Hawksbill Station, The Second Trip, A Time of Changes, etc.

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