Cassandra Rose Clarke's 2015's Our Lady of the Ice takes us to an alternate history, one in which Argentinean entrepreneurs have built an amusement park in Antarctica. Hope City was once profitable, but that golden age is long gone. These days the city ekes out a living selling power from their atomic reactor. Life in a marginally viable city in a polar wasteland is desperate. The only thing keeping the community from vanishing in a puff of economic logic is that most of the poor saps in Hope City cannot afford the cost of a visa and a ticket back to the mainland.
The current state of affairs suits Mr. Cabrera just fine. The
gangster legitimate businessman's entire business model is based on exploiting a trapped population. Marianella Luna's scheme to supplement imported food with produce from local agricultural domes threatens his bottom line. She is keeping the domes secret, but Cabrera suspects that something is going on. Luna is at the top of his personal enemies list.
But covert agricultural domes are not Luna's only secret, and that's where private detective Eliana Gomez comes in.
Pablo Sala knows Luna's darkest secret and he's willing to sell Cabrera the documents that prove it. Eliana Gomez, eager to earn the money for a ticket away from the decaying city, manages to retrieve the documents before Cabrera's trusted minion Diego can pick them up. Eliana does not do a very good job of covering her tracks but luckily for Eliana and very unluckily for Sala, Diego just happens to be Eliana's boyfriend. As soon as he realizes that his sweetie has foiled his boss’s mission, he decides to cover for her. Sala is taken out.
The town is small enough that a lot of Cabrera's underlings have conflicts of interest. One of them is the robot Sofia, She has allied with Cabrera out of necessity, but she is also Luna’s (very secret) lover; Sofia knows the secret that Sala took with him to the grave: Luna is a cyborg. Cyborgs are not allowed in Hope City and Luna is doomed if outed. Sofia too chooses her lover over her boss.
Indeed, Sofia has larger dreams. Hope City could live up to its name by becoming a refuge and homeland for all the thinking machines of the world. As she cannot imagine AIs and humans coexisting, she will have to get rid of all the humans in Hope City. By whatever means necessary.
One of 2015’s more intriguing publishing-world events was the launch of Saga Press, the science fiction and fantasy line that published Our Lady of the Ice. Saga Press is an imprint of Simon and Schuster, one of New York’s Big Four. S&S seemingly had no need of its own SF imprint, as it already had a relationship with a established SF publisher, the one whose name starts with a B and has barflies. So why did S&S feel the need for its own imprint? Well ... perhaps the market for SF is expanding rapidly enough to justify a change of course. It could not be because the market for badly written right-wing milSF with lousy covers isn't what it was. Heavens no! That would be sad.
Our Lady has something of a dieselpunk flavor. Perhaps you could even call it atompunk, if that's a thing. As is the case with a fair number of alternate history worlds, it is not at all clear what historical divergences led to the differences between our world and Hope City’s. However, it is clear that the Hope City world is more advanced than ours. The Argentinians founded Hope City in the 1890s. The novel takes place in the 1960s, a 1960s with intelligent robots and cyborgs.
I can accept all that, for the sake of story, but I find it hard to believe that Antarctica is a good place for an atomic power plant whose target market is South America. Presumably there are sub-sea power cables that connect Antarctica to Argentina, but, they must be impressively hard to maintain given the frigid waters, floating ice, and monstrous waves that separate the two continents. Hope City seems to be a business venture that was doomed from the start. I would have expected that the invisible steel-toed boots of the free market would have kicked it to pieces well before the time the book opens1.
The author has a lot of fun with concealed and conflicting agendas, many of which center on the
gangster legitimate businessman Cabrera. Diego tries to serve Cabrera while protecting Gomez. Sofia tries to placate Cabrera while working against him. Eliana is unwittingly working at cross purposes with her boyfriend. Luna is trying to build agricultural domes to help the very people who would drive her out if they knew what she really was.
I found much of the worldbuilding perplexing when I did not find it unconvincing, but that's my reaction to all too many alt-history and steam/diesel/atompunk novels. The interplay of characters, on the other hand, was something I could enjoy. Readers who aren’t as hung up on worldbuilding as I am might well enjoy this book more than I did.
(L'esprit de l'escalier: this review has been simmering for a while, enough time for me to realize there's a really obvious explanation for the oddities of the worldbuilding. The driving force behind Hope City and the atomic power plants is establishing Argentina's claim to territory in Antarctica. It does not make economic sense because the motive is not economic. The founding of Hope City is analogous to the far northern Canadian communities that were established simply to use living people as territorial markers. This also explains the bureaucratic barriers to leaving Hope City.)
Our Lady of the Ice is available from Saga Press.
1: The mind numbing cold and vicious weather of the Antarctic make frequent appearances in this book, but I never got the sense the author really groks intense cold. Cold so intense that a minute outside without proper gloves leaves one’s hands too paralyzed to work the door-key.