The Country of Ice Cream Star
Guardian First Book Award
Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction
I feel like I should start this review with a kind of grim joke: How can you tell if a book is science fiction or a mainstream novel with science fictional elements? The mainstream novel is reviewed with words like “ambitious,” while the science fiction one is hounded by all the Fail.
Before the Puppies, science fiction had what some were starting to call a culture of fails. The first really big Fail was RaceFail ’09. Then we had Mammoth Fail and Moon Fail and no doubt other minor fails, all of which were in essence about white writers being stupid/unthinking about writing or talking about people of color.
Now, here’s this book, written by a white woman in which the only people left in the “Nighted States” are black.
It’s never explained why only black people survive, or why the plague that killed off the ‘sleepers’ also affected every other ethnic minority in the United States, of which there is legion (like did all the Asian-Americans die too? What happened to the Native Americans?), but there it is. The plague, called WAKS, does affect the remaining population, but not until they’re over the age of eighteen. Then they start to suffer from ‘poseys’ and other ailments that slowly kill them.
Everyone smokes. All the girls are pregnant before they’re fully adult. There is alcohol everywhere. There’s rape, slavery, and a group of kids who wear feathers and live the warrior life in something akin to teepees.
On top of all that, the whole thing is written in pidgin English that feels very… well, it borders on exploitive. Maybe? Here’s Ice Cream Star’s description of her people, whom she calls the Sengles:
[We are] “a tarry sort, we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.”
There’s something like 580 pages of this kind of language, but I ended up reading every last word. The story itself is deeply compelling. In the first chapter, Ice Cream’s band of Sengles captures what they call a “roo,” a white man. She’s seen these strange creatures before, but there’s something about this particular one, Pasha, that changes everything for Ice Cream and her roving band of thieving scrappers. When he finally tells his story, the book becomes a quest to literally save the world.
What I ended up liking about this book was the ending, which I will not spoil, but which, despite the book’s literary bent, is constructive and hopeful. I would have thrown the book against the wall if it had ended “metaphorically” or with some depressing navel gazing about the mortality of man.
However I did spend an inordinate amount of time wondering if I should be more offended by how sassy Ice Cream Star is—how she uses her sexuality, how often she’s beaten up (and seems to find the experience “wolven”), and of course her language.
Thus, I’m left feeling conflicted.
Is this a great, “edgy,” and “ambitious” book or some kind of weird dystopian version of black-sploitation? I have no idea. I guess my advice is: read it for yourself, you decide.