Chris Bucholz’s Freeze/Thaw is many things. It is, of course, an entertaining near-future dystopian thriller, but it is also an exploration of how humanity reacts to adversity – both in terms of an ecological disaster and disability.
Freeze/Thaw takes place on Earth thirty years after the Shade, a semi-intelligent wall of discs blocking the light of the sun, was sent into space by a group of eco-terrorists. This drastic attempt to reverse global warming led to the reverse danger – the United States are now an ice-bound wasteland, Mexico occupied by fleeing Americans, while no one has heard from Europe in years. The human population has drastically fallen, and the majority of survivors scrape an existence scavenging America’s former cities.
When we meet the protagonist, Gabriel Alfil, he has been paralysed since a hiking accident over a decade previously. The only reason he is still alive is due to his rich and influential mother; a mere scavenger in a similar position would have been given up on as a “mouth” to feed. He has spent his time living on the internet, earning several degrees in computing and physics. This knowledge leads to him being approached by the military with a state-of-the-art exoskeleton to allow him to walk again – in exchange for his participation in a mission to shut down the Shade from a long-buried laboratory in Iowa.
Gabe, in short, is meant to save the world. But the complexity of his character is drawn from how the world he aims to save reacts to him, and his worth. The soldiers tasked with protecting him regard him as a burden, nicknaming him “Luggage”. Many see him solely as a numbers game – how much is that exo-skeleton worth? Could the money be put to better use elsewhere? Why waste resources on a “mouth”? And to many scavengers on the ice, he is nothing but something to be bought, sold or stolen. This lack of regard for Gabe as a person is reflected in his own self-worth. He frequently criticises himself throughout the novel, but as the story progresses his own confidence grows as he, in many ways, takes his life back and proves himself to his companions.
Gabe is, however, not entirely a victim. He makes mistakes, and puts his companions in danger. He also gained the exoskeleton by manipulating information to convince the military to give it to him rather than the wheelchair-bound veteran it was intended for. He himself acknowledges that this is despicable, but remains a sympathetic character because, overall, his motives are not altogether selfish. He does his best, but to be human is to err.
One of the strengths of Freeze/Thaw is this exploring of grey areas or, rather, the grey areas in which humanity now lives. With the effective breakdown of society, America is now a network of fractured, distrustful communities, who do what they can to survive. Over the course of the novel several unsavoury characters are encountered, but given their circumstances no one is entirely unsympathetic. The order of the day seems to be “it’s not personal; it’s business”, from scavengers double-crossing one another whenever possible to the highest ranks of the army running sidelines in looting. All characters are nuanced, rounded and believable and, above all, damaged by their environment – both ecological and social. This is most evident in attitudes directed towards Gabe. Even within his escort there is a range of attitudes – from grudging acceptance to indifference to eventual friendship to – in the case of Mason – utter hatred based on what he is rather than who he is, both because he is a disabled burden and from a rich and pampered background while others starve. Indeed, Gabriel “Luggage” Alfil spends much of the novel transitioning from a “what” to a “who” in the eyes of those around him in a parable of acceptance, and self-acceptance, under extreme circumstances.
If you enjoyed Bucholz’s debut, Severance, then this is a must-read. In Freeze/Thaw Bucholz again displays his skill with twists and maintaining a cynical, honest perspective on human relations, albeit in a slightly more serious manner than its predecessor. It displays frontier man in all his gritty, rough-around-the-edges glory, and it is a ride well worth taking.