THE WORD AMBITIOUS best describes Robert Balmanno’s entrance into the distinguished domain of the science fiction dystopia with his book September Snow, the first book in his planned four-book The Blessings of Gaia series. With this series, Balmanno offers a unique and timely approach to this subgenre with his focus on a climate out of control and a state religion based on nature worship, which, counter-intuitively, offers a framework for totalitarian control.
September Snow focuses on the experiences of the anachronistic Tom Novak, an old man and a writer from the years 2051 to 2097. By the end of that span, Tom is one of the oldest persons alive and probably the only writer. A relic of the past, Tom’s memory holds the only unmitigated record of events from before, during, and after cataclysmic events, such as the worldwide Eleven-Years-War, climate change, and a radical and totalitarian government, that have irrevocably affected modern life. Society is composed of the few who have money, power, and everything, and the masses at the bottom who are exploited. Much of the population, except the poorest of the poor and the few who resist, live in domes which offer protection from the fall-out of a breakdown in the earth’s climate, particularly from the scorching sun, but make people dependent on the totalitarian theocratic Gaia government.
In the early parts of the novel, Tom works within the system, basically as a PR dupe, enjoying the few privileges afforded him as a result of his status, but, for the most part, he is soul dead. That is, until he is liberated, literally, and later spiritually, when he is mistaken for a VIP and kidnapped by a resistance movement led by the namesake of the book, a woman named September Snow. September, wife of the scientist who orchestrated many of the advances that the Gaia government uses to enforce its rule, is especially equipped to search for and attempt to strike at the government’s Achilles heel.
Writing science fiction is a risky business. Fans, such as myself, can be persnickety when evaluating new works, because of the kinds of expectations we sometimes have. Balmanno is not writing so-called hard science fiction, science fiction characterized by an extrapolation from the technicalities of real science. For example, technologies like nuclear fusion and nuclear powered wind machines capable of changing the weather exist, but are not theorized in detail. Further, while political issues surrounding economic inequality, government control, climate change, and human interference with the natural world are certainly relevant to the arc of the novel, they do not take center stage like they might in Orwell, Huxley, Zamyatin, or the like. This book is about character and characterization. And while it’s easy to compare it to the seminal texts in the genre, 1984, Brave New World, We, and others, such as Logan’s Run, in my opinion it does Balmanno a disservice and risks a misreading of the novel and, perhaps, estranging oneself from it. To me, Balmanno’s work is not so much about competing with Orwell and the rest, but more in the tradition of the homage or, in modern terms, a mash up which uses different characteristics from these masterpieces as touchstones aligned to a polarity of Balmanno’s own. The strength of the novel ultimately lies in its accessibility. It isn’t just for science fiction readers, but is more attuned to a general audience, especially one concerned with issues important to us today and their implications for tomorrow.
There are certainly some aspects of the novel that were problematic for me. Elements like the prologue may feel like they tell too much, rather than show. Also, there is a tendency for repetition in places. A close reader may feel the repeated phrases and description are unnecessary, while it might serve other readers well in keeping them informed with what’s going on. Also, some characteristics felt either too gratuitous or stereotypical, for example, Tom’s talent for weather prognostication being possibly connected to his Native American heritage, or the description of the Yoda-like Native American Shamans who train Iona Snow, September’s daughter, in the desert at the end of the book.
But, the scope of the novel and Balmanno’s relentless focus on his characters have the tendency of ameliorating any shortcomings. This novel is big in a couple of ways. First, it covers nearly 50 years of time in 346 pages. Second, the action takes place all over the earth, from Antarctica to the Himalayas to the American-Mexican Sonora desert. While Balmanno might not go in depth in many aspects of the state of the future, the breadth he offers results in a feeling of a fully realized world. While I can’t say I identified with the main character Tom Novak, I found myself keenly interested in what was going to happen to him next. Balmanno has a knack of nurturing that kind of curiosity. Further, the end of the novel is strong. Iona’s development and the rest of the story that follows September’s last desperate attack on the Gaia government are compelling. Also, the end paves the way for the next in the series, which focuses on Iona’s struggle, and left me looking forward to book two.
Paul Shovlin is completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University and serving as Assistant Director for the Center for Writing Excellence. He specializes in new media and writing technologies. He lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife and son.