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Tuesday, May 18, 2004 - Page updated at 07:39 A.M.

'Snowfall' sci-fi trilogy captures a fearsomely frozen future

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor

Author Mitchell Smith, who lives in Whatcom County, keeps a low profile despite gaining critical acclaim for his sci-fi "Snowfall" trilogy.
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WHATCOM COUNTY — Author Mitchell Smith has that Northwest Everyman look. His trimmed white beard, casual shoes and parka suggest a retired professor, doctor or (after a look at the closely pressed shirt) a retired military man.

The book covers in his "Snowfall" science-fiction trilogy are straight out of pulp fiction: hunky, fur-clad men, fierce saber-rattling women and lurking half-man, half-human beasts, posed against a Hall-of-the-Mountain-King landscape. You'd never know that they have been compared to the science fiction classics "Riddley Walker" and "A Canticle for Leibowitz."

Smith keeps a low profile. The Whatcom County resident does few author readings. There's no author photo on the jackets of his books, no fancy press kits attached when his books come out.

But the three books in the trilogy — "Snowfall," "Kingdom River" and the just-released "Moonrise" (all published by Tor) — have received impressive reviews, a feat all the more remarkable in that Smith jumped genres, from the crime novel to science fiction, when he embarked on the three-volume story that re-creates life in a future, fearsomely frozen world.

From "Moonrise," the new adventure novel by Mitchell Smith:

Baj and his party cling to the ice as they climb the great ice wall that covers most of North America.

Night came quite suddenly. There was light, and airy vision, and all the warm colors sunset reflected from glaze ice, frost ice, fractured ice, and the country below — then, in the time a few breaths might be taken, the heights and air and the world beneath were only grays ... As the dark came down, the wind came up, and began to whine and warble past pinnacles, pillars and massive fluted columns of ice — humming there with a vibration so great that Baj felt his teeth and bones sing to it.

... the wind gradually rose to howling, buffeting so they swung and swung with it, once thudding back against the sheer ice they were fastened to. Then, cold slid in like narrow knives, with slow and searching thrusts, so he put his blanketed arm around Nancy and hugged her, burrowing deep as he could in furs and wool, as if into safety from a monstrous world.

It seemed a storm so extraordinary, so endlessly savage — though Baj supposed this was the storm of every night along the Wall. The wind, cold and terror of the gulf below their frail web of woven leather line, seemed to gape to swallow them as if the night had sense malevolent ... Their narrow sling swayed in the blasts of wind, shook — and Baj had visions of small steel hooks wrenched looser and looser from crumbling holds ... of greased braided leather, frozen to fragile, suddenly snapping so they were spilled to fall endlessly ... until even screaming faded to silence, and they fell quiet as if already dead.

There was no rest — any exhausted drift to dreaming was driven away by wind-noise screaming and continuous, and the sudden jolting of their seating as greater gusts came booming in, the storm battering at the Wall ...

Baj gave up his life several times as the night roared on ... gave his up, but refused to part with Nancy's. He made her his jewel in the dark, his place of refuge and silence — too valuable to lose to anything.

Paul Di Fillippo, who reviewed the first two books for the Web site, wrote of "Snowfall": "In this beautifully brutal, compulsively readable novel, Mitchell Smith has crafted one of the finer post-apocalypse tales of recent years. ... While examining the roots of civilization and sketching its ruins, Smith manages to tell several love stories and limn the clash between the soft and hard cultures that have arisen, all without sacrificing one iota of narrative momentum."

As "Snowfall" begins, a disturbance in Jupiter's orbit has affected that of Earth, plunging the planet into a new ice age (in the solar system, Jupiter acts as a gravitational counterbalance to the sun). Civilization has vanished, but tantalizing remnants remain.

The Trappers eke out a primitive existence at the edge of the great Ice Wall, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Ice covers half the country; spring and summer last eight weeks of the year. "The Wall was almost a mile high," Smith writes. "The Trappers hunted along its base in the winter, sometimes, before the spring thaw. Then it became too dangerous. Clouds gathered along its rim, and storms crashed and thundered down the cliffs, so fools prayed to Weather to spare them, forgetting their copy-Bible.

"In the three weeks of summer, great pieces of the Wall broke free and toppled from it, so the earth shook. Sometimes waterfalls poured down from the crest and foamed high surf in flooding lakes. These cataracts stopped toward the end of August, when all froze and became silent again."

The country has been divided into several kingdoms; as "Snowfall" unfolds, an indolent empire lies to the South of the Trappers in the warmer regions of Mexico. The Middle Kingdom, in the Mississippi River Valley, is a brutal society built on slavery and cannibalism. Map-Boston, to the Northeast, is Harvard gone sour — in the city beneath the ice, the brains of Boston perform a sort of telekinetic genetic manipulation on women, forcing them to bear children that are half-human, half-beast.

The Trappers' world is a tantalizing mix of the barbaric and the civilized; in the first book, Catania Olsen, one of a suite of strong, appealing female characters in the trilogy, is their doctor. She practices a primitive medicine comprised of folk wisdom, her instincts and remnants of the knowledge that physicians once had at their hands, preserved from "copy-books," the remnants of books that have been copied and passed down through generations.

"Snowfall" recounts the Trappers' struggle for survival. The second installment, "Kingdom River," propels the Trappers' descendants to the Middle Kingdom, where they join forces to battle a Mongolian-style horde that crosses the ice to North America, led by a brilliant and cruel despot, Toghrul Khan. The just-released "Moonrise" tells the story of Baj, the Khan's son, as he struggles to dethrone the corrupted Bostonians, aided by two companions whose mothers were forced by the Bostonians into bearing them — Richard, a half-man, half-bear; and Nancy, a fiery-tempered girl with elements of fox in her makeup.

Smith infuses these tales with scrupulous characterization and research, pulse-pounding adventure and battle scenes and a love of the natural world. They are an elegy for what's been lost, a testament to the survivors and to the power of nature, which has forcefully reasserted its domination over mankind.

Duane Wilkins, science-fiction buyer for the University Book Store, says the trilogy is hard to categorize. The store stocked the first book in its general fiction area, but it didn't sell until it was reshelved in science fiction. The "Snowfall" books appeal as much to fans of "alternate history" as to hardcore sci-fi fans, he says.

Smith embraces the conventions of the genre — the western, the crime novel, the adventure tale, the science-fiction epic. "I prefer characters who find themselves in a difficulty and do something about it," he says. "I use the genre fiction framework and then deal with them seriously."

Smith was born in 1935 in upper New York state, the son of a battle surgeon who served in World War II and died shortly afterward of diseases contracted in the Pacific, and a mother who was a public health nurse. During and after the war, young Mitchell attended military school on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

His feel for detail is evident in his memory of the place; it eerily recalls the windswept royal fortress on a Mississippi River island in "Kingdom River" (with echoes of the movie "Apocalypse Now"): "we lived in huge dormitories, with facing windows on the Gulf. It was very dark. The commander would pay Wagner and pace down those dark, windy corridors. He had a red bat with the name 'Hawkeye' engraved on it, though as far as I know, he never hit anyone with it." After studying English and history at Columbia University, Smith enlisted in the Army, and worked in military intelligence in Berlin in the early 1960s in the thick of the Cold War.

Smith says he was just a clerk. But it was a school in the brutal side of human nature, and he learned how history can turn on a dime. He recalls "a big, thick, gray, spiral-bound document," documenting the Nazi plans for America once Germany and Japan had won the war. "The Japanese would control the country west of the Mississippi; the Germans the East. There would be concentration camps in Hartford, Connecticut and Amarillo, Texas," because of its intercontinental rail links. Any person who failed to bow to a Japanese soldier would be executed on the spot. ... Blacks were not to be taught to read or write. People over 60 were not to be given food or fuel rations.

He pauses: "We were very, very fortunate that we won that war. The world was lucky, lucky."

After the military, Smith went to New York City and began writing pulp westerns. Eventually he switched to the crime fiction thriller genre, penning the critically praised "Due North" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), "Karma" (Dutton, 1994), "Sacrifice" (Dutton, 1997) and "Reprisal" (Dutton, 1999). He and his wife, Linda, a retired special-education teacher, met in Georgia; they moved to the Northwest about 16 years ago.

Smith says he's stuck to genres because their plot conventions offer his characters the opportunity to respond to stress. "It strikes me that the difficulty of many ruminative novels is that they have no exterior stress," he says. The characters "suffer internally, and interminably. In short stories you can put up with a moper, but 400-500 pages — come on," he says.

He first got the idea for "Snowfall" 40 years ago: "it's pretty obvious how weather affects us," he says. "Kingdom River" is about the permutations of power, "what it does to people who have it and the responsibilities that come with it. Once you have it, it's like a fatal disease. There's no giving it up. Sam Monroe (the leader of the Trappers) is stuck with it, and he hates it."

"Moonrise" features a stress visited upon an entire society; the genetic manipulation and breeding of mutants. Of the corrupted Boston elite who achieve center stage in "Moonrise," he says, "Who else is going to take charge when all hell freezes over?"

His next book will be something different, the story of a girl in a traveling circus.

"She has a disability," he says: Her father, enraged by her beauty when she was a child, gets drunk and cuts her nose off.

"She was a perfect person, surrounded by imperfect people," he muses. Her story will be that of a character who finds her strength under great, if inhuman, pressure.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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