Exclusive Interview: “The Ice Orphan” Author Kathleen O’Neal Gear
With The Ice Orphan (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Kathleen O’Neal Gear is concluding the hard sci-fi / cli-fi series The Rewilding Reports that she began in 2021 with The Ice Lion and continued in 2022’s The Ice Ghost. In the following email interview, Gear discusses this epic conclusion.
For people who haven’t read The Ice Lion and The Ice Ghost, or the interviews we did about them [here and here], what is The Rewilding Reports trilogy about, and when and where do these books take place?
The Rewilding Reports trilogy revolves around a catastrophic mistake made about 1,000 years ago by a people who are now legends and gods: The Jemen. In an effort to halt climate change, the Jemen introduced an engineered species of bioluminescent algae — called the zyme — into the world’s oceans. That’s the trick, isn’t it? When humans decide to bioengineer species and release them into an ecosystem as vast as the oceans, it’s tough to monitor all the mutations that occur. By the time the Jemen realized their error, they’d triggered an unstoppable new Ice Age. They knew the ice would eventually expand around the globe and they’d be forced to flee to the stars. Their only hope for Earth was to use their genetic knowledge to recreate species that had survived the Pleistocene and hope those species could also survive the coming ice age.
In the first book, The Ice Lion, we discover that, almost a thousand years later, glaciers three miles high rise over North America, and the resurrected Neandertals, Denisovans, Homo Erectus, giant American lion, giant steppe bison, dire wolves, mammoths, and mastodons are struggling on the edge of extinction. Until sixteen-year-old Lynx meets a strange old man named Arakie who claims to be the last surviving Jemen. Arakie tells Lynx he’s dying and he’s chosen Lynx to follow in his footsteps. That means Lynx must study with the last quantum computer on earth, Quancee.
In the second book, The Ice Ghost, Lynx is left alone with Quancee…and discovers that Arakie was not the last Jemen. The legends of his people have spoken about the Old Woman of the Mountain who ordered the Jemen to flee the earth. But when the mad Neandertal prophet named Trogon has a vision that she is still alive and her whereabouts are known only Lynx’s best friend, Quiller, Lynx knows she’s in danger. Trogon captures and forces Quiller to lead him to the Old Woman’s hidden cave. Lynx has to rescue her. As he tracks them through the hidden caves that honeycomb the mountains beneath the glaciers, he discovers the magnificent, haunting remnants of a long vanished culture…and an enigmatic figure who calls himself Vice Admiral Steven Jorgenson.
And then for people who have read them, and thus can ignore me writing SPOILER ALERT, what is The Ice Orphan about, and when does it take place in relation to The Ice Ghost?
The Ice Orphan takes place about three years after The Ice Ghost. It’s been 925 summers since the zyme and all the archaic hominins have to save them from the expanding ice is a dying quantum computer and her acolyte, Lynx. When the last Jemen tells Lynx that he’s going to dismantle Quancee and use her parts to create a new computer, Lynx is stunned. Quancee is alive. Jorgenson wants to kill her, but Lynx doesn’t know why. While Lynx battles to save Quancee, the quantum computer has other priorities. Before it dies, it has to save a special little boy who cannot save himself.
The Ice Lion and The Ice Ghost mixed elements of climate fiction and hard sci-fi. Is it safe to assume that The Ice Orphan does this as well?
Hard science plays a greater role The Ice Orphan, particularly Roger Penrose’s theories of quantum consciousness. I like toying with the idea that, in certain circumstances, humans can act as quantum waves. But if so, does that imply something like a soul? I have fun exploring the implications in The Ice Orphan.
Moving on to the always appreciated questions about influences, are there any writers that had a particularly big influence on The Ice Orphan but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not The Ice Lion and The Ice Ghost?
Ah, well, W. Michael Gear [Kathleen’s husband] is always a part of anything I write. We have long discussions about the possible ramifications of quantum consciousness, especially when it comes to religion. In the case of The Ice Orphan our discussions centered on death. If humans can act as quantum waves, what happens at death? Is there is an afterlife of sorts? What would it feel like when the wave “moves on”? As archaeologists, we are both naturally drawn to aboriginal philosophy, which often sounds very much like quantum physics, so aboriginal philosophy also plays a role in The Ice Orphan.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on The Ice Orphan?
None I can think of, but Star Trek at some level has influenced every science fiction writer in the past sixty years. It may well be the most important creative influence in my life, as it is in the lives of many scientists, I think. We all want “to go beyond” what is known and speculate on what might be.
As we’ve been discussing, The Ice Orphan is the third book of The Rewilding Reports trilogy. In preparation for writing this final installment, did you look to any other novels that ended sagas to get a sense of what to do…and what not to do?
Nope, and the reason is simple. They would be a distraction. By the time I reach the end of a story, my characters have their own unique requirements. There are things they need to do, and I have to let them do it their way.
With The Ice Orphan concluding The Rewilding Reports trilogy, there are undoubtedly people who will consider reading all three books back-to-back. Do you think this is a good way to take in this story, or should people spread them out?
That’s an interesting question. Personally, I love to book binge. I feel the same way about TV series. If you read / watch straight through, I think you catch nuances of characters that you’d miss otherwise. But I can see a careful reader preferring to contemplate each book for a while before moving on the next. There are some intriguing ideas in The Rewilding Reports that should, I think, be pondered.
Speaking of The Ice Orphan being the end of The Rewilding Reports trilogy, you and your husband recently ended your North America’s Forgotten Past series with the release of Lightning Shell. For people who don’t want to read the interview we did about that novel, what is that series about, and what is that novel about?
Yes, ending a series is always bittersweet. There’s a sense of catharsis that the characters have reached the end of their stories, but you miss them. We spent about five years with the People Of Cahokia miniseries, and those characters are still very much alive inside us. I call it a miniseries because the overall series chronicles about 20,000 years of North American prehistory, tracing the courses of the great civilizations that thrived before the arrival of Europeans. The Cahokia miniseries is principally about only one extraordinary culture, the Mississippian mound builders. For the time period, they were amazing mathematicians, engineers, and astronomers. Lightning Shell follows the last journey of the seer, Night Shadow Star, and her evil brother Walking Smoke, known as the Lightning Shell witch. Both are racing home to Cahokia to face the final showdown. Following in her wake, Fire Cat will stop at nothing to make sure it is he, not Night Shadow Star, who pays the ultimate price.
Unlike with The Ice Orphan, you and your husband didn’t start writing the North America’s Forgotten Past series with the plan to end it 22 years later with Lightning Shell. How do you think having to conclude the Forgotten series with Lightning, and without that being something you’d be working towards, may have influenced Orphan, which you’d always planned to be the conclusion of The Rewilding Reports trilogy?
Hmm! Never thought about it, but I suppose writing a long series does influence every other series you write. Ending The Rewilding Reports was probably more poignant for me because we’d just ended the Forgotten series. There’s no question but that I lost many dear friends when those two series concluded. But the questions raised by The Ice Orphan will keep me up a lot of nights in the future, so the journey of those characters isn’t exactly over. I’m still mulling what it all means.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Ice Orphan?
Just that I hope it makes them wonder about the nature of reality and how we define the word soul. Everything seems supernatural until you understand it — not that anyone really understands quantum physics.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Ice Orphan — and, presumably, The Ice Lion and The Ice Ghost — they’re probably going to want something short and sweet. So, what hard sci-fi / cli-fi story would you recommend they check out?
Oh, that’s easy: “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov from The Complete Short Stories: Volume One. He had a way of tugging at the heart while demanding the head work overtime. This is one of my favorite short stories.