As bad as the COVID outbreak has been, it has had one positive side effect: the environment has gotten better thanks to people driving a lot less. But that doesn’t mean the climate crisis is over… In her new cli-fi novel The Ice Lion (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Kathleen O’Neal Gear explores life in a far future in which the environment has been irrevocably changed by global warming.
Photo Credit: W. Michael Gear
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is The Ice Lion about, and when and where does it take place?
The Ice Lion takes place about one thousand years in the future, when the zyme, a thick blanket of luminous green slime, has covered the world’s oceans. Glaciers three-miles-high rise over the continents. Legends say that when the Jemen, godlike beings from the past, realized they had made a catastrophic error in their efforts to halt global warming, they made a desperate gamble to save life on Earth and recreated species that had survived the worst of earth’s Ice Ages.
Sixteen-summers-old Lynx and his best friend Quiller are Sealion People — archaic humans known as Denisovans. They live in a world growing immensely colder, a world filled with giant lions, dire wolves, and short-faced bears that hunt them for food. In the process of fleeing their enemies, Lynx and Quiller arrive in a new land — the Pacific coast of North America — where they encounter a strange old man who, impossibly, seems to be a survivor of pre-zyme society. Dr. John Arakie tells Lynx the only way he can save his world is by sacrificing himself to the last true god, a quantum computer named Quancee.
And is there a reason you set it a thousand years from now as opposed to 20 years or a hundred years or, on the flipside, five thousand years?
It’s all about the evolution of culture.
Fifty years ago anthropologists thought that complex thought and art were unique to Homo sapiens sapiens — us. We now know that is not correct. Between about 50,000 years ago and 38,000 years ago, archaeologists can document an explosion of artistic knowledge, especially when it comes to the use of colors and shapes. There’s a dramatic increase in extraordinary cave paintings, incised bone, beads, and shell ornaments, as well as carved figurines. There were five or six different human species roaming the earth at the time, and this is exactly the period when we think modern humans and archaic human species began to seriously connect. Archaeologists like to say these species “dropped their genes,” and we mean it literally and figuratively. It’s likely that this cognitive revolution came about because there was a critical exchange of cultural ideas and genetics going on. Modern humans still carry archaic human DNA. Personally, I’m about 3% Neandertal and 4% Denisovan. Since some of the earliest recorded artworks are associated with these species, it’s likely that the techniques, colors, and shapes used by archaic artists influenced the first modern human artists.
As an archaeologist, I had to give my recreated archaic species enough to time for their cultures — especially their storytelling traditions about the Jemen — to evolve and diverge. One thousand years was the minimum necessary to accomplish such an exchange of ideas and genetic material.
The Ice Lion is a cli-fi novel, as in climate fiction. But are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
Hard science fiction. A good deal of the story relies on genetics and quantum philosophy, but more on theories of “prehistoric mind.”
Given that you’re an archeologist and anthropologist, and that The Ice Lion is a cli-fi novel, it seems safe to assume it’s inspired by what’s going on in the world. But did you set out to tell a scientifically-relevant story or did you come up with a story and then realize would either work well as something scientifically-relevant?
I started thinking about The Ice Lion trilogy many years ago. I was researching how climate change — episodes of warming and cooling — affected the rise and collapse of civilizations in the past, and it spurred me to research different methods for cooling the planet today. Several proposals required tampering with the oceans. It worried me. …And The Ice Lion trilogy was born.
Were there any instances when you had to choose between being scientifically accurate or telling a good story?
I don’t choose between the two. I side with the science. It may be the far side, but I can still scientifically justify the hypotheses in the story.
The Ice Lion is, of course, not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Ice Lion but not on anything else you’ve written?
Not really. The fascinating story of how ancient humans survived environmental disasters plays a role in many of my books.
And how about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those have an influence on The Ice Lion ?
I’m more influenced by quantum theory, anthropological hypotheses about the ancient mind, and the archaeological data.
Speaking of those other books you’ve written, some were co-written by your husband, W. Michael Gear. Who, oddly enough, has two new books of his own: Dissolution, which he described as being, “a near-future dystopian, apocalyptic, Western, science fiction, thriller,” and the sci-fi adventure story Adrift [which you can learn more about here]. Do you guys read each other’s stuff and offer feedback?
We are the other’s best editor. We constantly throw around ideas for plot and characters, and argue over the interpretation of scientific information. Did Mike give any feedback that prompted me to change the story? Absolutely. He is very good at pointing out that I included so much non-fiction I slowed the story to a crawl. If Mike thinks it slowed the story, then it did, and it needs to go. Deciding how much non-fiction to include in a novel is an art, not an exact science.
And then, did you get anything out of reading Adrift that influenced any aspect of The Ice Lion ?
No, they’re very different stories. Adrift is set on the world of Donovan, with fabulous alien life forms, while The Ice Lion is set in our own earthly future with recreated Pleistocene fauna and flora.
Now, my understanding is that The Ice Lion is the first book in a series you’re calling The Rewilding Reports. What can you tell us about this series?
It’s a trilogy, but each novel can be read as a stand-alone. Obviously, it helps if you’ve read the other books — you’ll understand a lot more about the story and characters–but it’s not necessary.
COVID has delayed a number of books (due to complications with book printers), so the second book, The Ice Ghost, will be out May of 2022. I don’t know when The Ice Orphan is scheduled. Hopefully, publishers will have better ideas of publication dates when COVID recedes and printers get back to normal.
Upon hearing that The Rewilding Reports is a trilogy, some people will decide to wait until all of the books are out before reading any of them, and some will also decide to read all of them back-to-back. Do you think people should wait, or should they read The Ice Lion now?
Don’t wait. There’s a lot to think about in the books, especially when it comes to ideas about prehistoric mind, quantum philosophy, and climate science. I hope readers will want to ponder the hypotheses for a while before they dive into the next book.
Earlier I asked if The Ice Lion had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. To flip things around, do you think The Ice Lion could work as a movie, show, or game?
Of course! Authors always think their book is perfect for a movie, TV show, or game. Given the anthropological and climate issues in The Rewilding Reports, I’d love to see it become a TV series. You have more time in TV series to explore the subject matter in depth.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Lynx, Quiller, and the other main characters?
Well, that’s a tough question. Most of the characters are archaic hominins: Denisovan, Neandertal, and Homo erectus, though there’s one modern human. Each species will be a unique challenge for the actor. The species move differently, speak differently, and think differently. Portraying them will take dedication. And Lynx and Quiller are young, so the producer will have to find special teenage talent. That said, I think David Mazouz [Gotham] could play Lynx, and Sadie Sink [Stranger Things] could play Quiller. Dr. John Arakie is easier because he’s a modern human, but the role requires an older actor who can create sympathy for the plight of archaic species. [Picard‘s] Patrick Stewart would, of course, be amazing. Bruce Boxleitner [Babylon 5] would be great, as well.
How about a video game? I hear you’re a bit of a gamer…
Yes, I’m a fan of the first-person shooter genre, and Bungie would be the perfect producer. I love the stuff Bungie does.
Finally, at the end of the interview I’m doing with your husband about Adrift, I asked him which of your books he would you suggest people check out. So, of course, I have to ask you the same thing: If someone enjoys The Ice Lion, which of your other books would you suggest they read while waiting for The Ice Ghost to come out?
Maze Master is hard science fiction set in the not-too-distant future, and is about a Denisovan virus that currently exists in our modern human genome — the remnant of a devastating pandemic 50,000 years ago that may have led to the decimation of both Denisovans and Neandertals–and the modern pandemic this virus sparks. Part of the novel is set in the Megalithic temples of Malta, which date to around 5,600 years ago. Maze Master won the 2018 International Book Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
Cries From The Lost Island is a fantasy novel about two teenage boys in search of the lost graves of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. They have quite an adventure with Egyptian archaeology and overly protective ancient gods. I really enjoyed writing this book. It gave me a chance to present the actual historical story of Antony and Cleopatra, and to explore ancient Egyptian religion.