Book Review: The Ice Schooner, Michael Moorcock (1969)


(Keith Robert’s cover for the 1966 edition)

3.25/5 (Average)

The Ice Schooner (1969) is the second of Michael Moorcock’s novels I’ve read — the first was the equally unremarkable adventure The Warlord of the Air (1971).  The Ice Schooner, an homage to seafaring  works of Joseph Conrad, functions as a standalone novel without the trappings of Moorcock’s multi-verse mythology.  Despite the lack of explicit connection between this novel’s hero and the “eternal champion” character archetype that features in so many of his works, one could argue that Konrad Arflane displays many of the same characteristics.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

In the far future a nuclear war caused drastic temperature change across the globe.  The majority of Earth is covered by a massive sheet of ice.  Unusual whales have “adapted” to the temperature changes and live on the surface of the ice.  They are the primary food source of Earth’s remaining inhabitants.  The entire existence of the Matteo Grosso, an ice plateau containing eight cities carved into chasms in the ice (and deeper down, stone), depends on sailing vessels that move across the ice via skis   They are ancient vessels constructed with fiberglass hulls — the technology does not exist to create new vessels, rather, all manner of human ingenuity is required to keep them sailing.

The religion of the Matteo Gross surrounds the figure of the Ice Mother.  She is rumored to reside (physically or metaphorically, it is never clear which) in the far north.  The extreme coldness of the world is considered a natural the state of existence and it is only her mercy that prevents all of humanity from destruction.  However, death, due to the incredibly precarious nature of life, is considered in a much different — almost positive — light.  Death is simply the return to the Ice Mother’s bosom after a momentary flicker of existence.  However, there are rumors (and some evidence) of a slow temperature rise…  And new whale herds have been spotted…

The cities of the Matteo Grosso are constantly engaged in competition — trade, warfare  etc — with each other.  Konrad Arflane, the novel’s hero, was once a captain of an ice-going vessel.  However, in order to pay off debts to another city, his vessel was sold.  In a state of mental anguish and desperation Konrad heads off into the ice expanses along to contemplate his fate — he loathes to return to his city and serve as a lower ranked officer.  At the moment it appears that he has resolved to return to the bosom of the Ice Mother he comes across a dying man who has crawled great distances across the ice.  The man is Lord Rorsefne of the wealthiest city of the Matteo Grosso.  He is the sole survivor of an ill-fated expedition to the fabled city of New York.

After Konrad Arflane — who had no obligation according to his society’s code of behavior — carries him back to his city he becomes embroiled in the bickering of the members of Lord Rorsefne’s extended family. Eventually, the Lord dies leaving Konrad the command, to the disgust of the Lord’s heir, of the most sophisticated and desired ice vessels as long as he sails north toward New York.  Konrad sees the quest almost as a pilgrimage to the Ice Mother.  While some of the other passengers see the voyage as a manifestation of the changing world….  A voyage beyond the traditional realms of the Matteo Grosso…

Final Thoughts

The pros: The Ice Schooner contains an intriguing — if underdeveloped — world and an unusual hero who refuses to depart in action or ideology from his traditional past despite the world changing around him.  The friction caused by Arflane’s radical traditionalism butting against other characters who are slowly departing from the time honored ways and the physical evidence of the evolving world is the novel’s central theme.  The cons: The novel never moves beyond the simple adventure story framework, which is, in itself, not a problem.  However, I found the telling banal and uninvolving.  Most disappointing is the love story between Arflane and Ulrica, who is married to Lord Rorsefne’s heir.

If you are a fan of Moorcock then The Ice Schooner is worth reading.  If you are interested in an accessible adventure novel with fantasy and sci-fi trappings before plunging into Moorcock’s massive interconnected canon then The Ice Schooner might be the way to go.  Only marginally better than Robert Silverberg’s juvenile on the same theme — Time of the Great Freeze (1964)…


(Uncredited cover for the 1969 edition)

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 11.08.26 AM

(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1977 edition)Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 11.09.10 AM(Kossim’s cover for the 1969 edition)

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24 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ice Schooner, Michael Moorcock (1969)

  1. Its a shame that you and Mr. Moorcock don’t get along. I’m pretty much a lifelong fan, but I’ll agree that he doesn’t spend much time painting in a world as much as some other authors do. That being said, Von Bek and a few of the other minor chars in the Eternal Champion multiverse really don’t do his work a service. Have you tried his classics, like Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, or are those too far into the realm of Fantasy for you? Hawkmoon has “firelances” (laser weapons) and a few other things, mostly steampunk-ish ornithopters… Yeah, I guess I’m trying to sell you on it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Schooner though. Was a nice surprise to see your review.

    • No, I have only read The Warlord of the Air and The Ice Schooner…. But yes, I try to avoid fantasy — the only fantasy I enjoy are the more literary/inventive non-Tolkein ripp-off ones — for example, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, etc. And of course Tolkein…. I used to like fantasy a lot more but have since moved to sci-fi.

  2. Joachim. I think the reason you aren’t liking any of the Moorcock’s you are reading, is because you have started off with his least lauded novels! You are doing the reverse of what most people would start with, namely his acknowledged classics like the Jerry Cornelius series (which I think would be much more to your New Wave SF taste) plus the much more SF-inspired, complex (and NOT twee) fantasy novels, Dancers at the End of Time sequence. These two series are much more up your street, I think. And even Elric, or the Runestaff/Corum books, to a lesser extent. Believe me, after reading many of your reviews, I think you would get on a lot better with some of these. Cheers…

    • Ah, I certainly did not think that The Ice Schooner was bad…. It was a solid/average work. But certainly not bad. Perhaps the problem is I rarely see the first novels in a series on the shelf at used book stores — haha.

  3. Joachim, I agree entirely with JamesDC here. The Cornelius books, the Elric books, BEHOLD THE MAN, are the ones I read/am reading. I read his Mars pseudonymous books as a teen, enjoyable but forgettable. I sometimes read the`minor` books of an author who`s only written a few things, but with someone as prolific as Moorcock you may never get to the good stuff if you start with the dregs. You might try BLACK CORRIDOR [which Karl Edward Wagner got me to with his listing of it on his list of best scifi horror novels] or GLORIANA, which was written as a response to GORMENGAST [which I have been picking my way through for ages]. You might also try John Crowley sometime, he may be my favorite living fantasy writer–I despise Tolkienesque fantasy, which I rank with Dr. Who or Star Trek novels [and TV shows, actually].

    • I’ve read Crowley’s Beasts and thought it was pretty good. I have The Deep on my shelf waiting to be read. I really am not a fan of fantasy (or sci-fi horror) so I doubt I’ll be reading that much any time soon…. But yes, I’ll eventually procure some of Moorcock’s more famous works.

  4. I also recommend the Jerry Cornelius books, especially The Condition of Muzak. (The Final Programme, the first novel in the series, is a reworking of the early Elric stories.) I’d also point you to Mother London which might be his finest novel (it has very little SF), the Colonel Pyat novels (which has some SF), and Gloriana (Moorcock’s “tribute” to Peake).

  5. Oh, sure, we all have towers of unread books, but it`s fun to keep talking about ones we might read. In fact, how many unread books one has is an indicator of one`s love for books. [I`m making a generalization, so of course this won`t apply to everyone.] I`m the same way with music……If you ever see a cheap copy of Crowley`s ENGINE SUMMER, you should read the cover copy. It is his best science fiction novel, with one of the best endings of any science fiction novel, and I say that without fear of building it up too much.

  6. Some background on how The Ice Schooner came to be written: Moorcock says that after getting a lot of negative responses from publishers over his ‘experimental’ novels such as The Final Programme and Behold the Man – Moorcock couldn’t get a publisher for the first Jerry Cornelius novel so published extracts in New Worlds magazine himself instead – he began to wonder if he knew enough about narrative to be able to write a straightforward SF novel. That might seem an odd concern given he had written over a dozen novels by then but in any case, The Ice Schooner was essentially an ‘experiment’ where Moorcock took the basic plot of Conrad’s The Rescue and re-worked it to see if he could write a ‘conventional novel’.

    Personally, I think if you read Moorcock’s work in chronological order you see a significant step-up from his earlier ‘pulp’ novels to The Ice Schooner in terms of both artistic and technical quality. It’s not his best novel by any means but it is one of his most reprinted and – given it has Conrad to thank for its structure – I do think a case can be made to regard it as Moorcock’s first ‘proper’ novel, where he broke away from the ‘simplicity’ of his Martian & Hawkmoon novels and produced a work that was – at the very least imo – (a little) more nuanced. Better novels came later but it is, as you say, a “solid/average work”.

  7. Really enjoying the comments here. I read the traditional Moorcock fantasy novels (Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc.) as a kid and enjoyed them. As I’ve aged, those books have not aged as well in my opinion, though they are still classics in the fantasy field. I’ll have to take a look at his other, lesser known works to see if anything intrigues me. Might start with this one. It sounds like a light read, which is enjoyable if not life changing.

    • It’s as straightforward adventure as you can get…

      What do you mean “aged well”? As with “dated” these phrases seem like easy ways to dismiss a work instead of discussing what is actually wrong with them. Albeit, perhaps I would think the same after I get around to reading them 😉

      • I agree perhaps my using “aged well” was not a clear statement of my meaning – though naturally, in my mind, it was. However, what I meant (I am going to paraphrase, not having written a full review of these books as of yet) is that the writing style is clear yet very simple in its structure, the plot lines are entertaining but linear in their execution, and the philosophical musings did not rise to the level of an epiphany about life – at least in my opinion. Now, that is not to say that my reading of these sword and sorcery classics was not enjoyable, but at thirteen, I was much easier to entertain than I am now at fourty-two.

        From your review, it appears that the earlier or lesser known – at least to me – works of Moorcock might still be enjoyable reads, even with the limitations that you pointed out. So thanks for bringing this one to all of our attentions, because I had never heard of it, though I am not saying I’ve ever done any exhaustive search on the subject.

        • I was just curious 😉 But yes, for an older reader it might not hold up. But, people still write in those straightforward styles so I’m not sure how linked it is to publication date….

          Sometimes I still wish I was 13 for this very reason… hahaha.

    • It’s been too long for me to remember specifics. I was a huge fan of naval fiction in my teens (before I read a lot of SF) and definitely remember reading London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904).

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