This review was originally published at ZHWJ on 14 June, 2004.
Obtaining fresh water has become a pressing problem in many parts of the world, including China. Agriculture, industry, and larger society all compete for a dwindling supply of water. There have even been predictions that wars in the next century will be fought not over oil or mineral rights, but over access to fresh water. In Cold Ice, Hot Blood, author Zheng Jun spins the fact that 70% of the Earth’s fresh water is trapped in the Antarctic ice into a techno-thriller set on an iceberg floating in the Indian Ocean.
The Berg Express company (it has a Chinese name but is called “BE” throughout the novel) is in its fifth year in the iceberg transport business. The founder, Qin Yu, is a self-made billionaire from a large, poor family in China’s northeast, who originally had scrapped his way up to become the owner of a small shipping company. He came across some articles by a university lecturer, Sun Yiran, who had developed a way of propelling icebergs using hydrogen fuels. Qin Yu financed his research, and in 2005 they shipped their first iceberg to the Arabian Peninsula.
In the four years since, the company continued to expand, shipping icebergs to parched areas, and landing Qin Yu on the cover of Time as Man of the Year. Iceberg water turns out to be cheaper and better tasting than desalinized seawater, and the sheer volume of fresh water now available to regions like the Middle East holds forth the promise of an end to territorial conflict. BE ships eight icebergs a year, with plans to expand to a maximum of about twenty-six.
The immense scale of the operations, as well as the scientific and technological heroism involved in transporting such massive objects, might recall the scientism of early American SF (and recent Chinese SF). Zheng Jun dispenses with that early on, however, when he mentions the motives of BE’s founders:
Although all of the technological wonders were built alongside a wariness of nature’s greatness, the two great heads of the BE company did nothing to refute the charge of attempting to “conquer nature.” Qin Yu craved greatness and reveled in this wording. He knew that in the eyes of westerners, nature was God’s creation, so to conquer nature was to wrestle with God. “I don’t believe in God–so what if I want to wrestle with him a bit?” Qin Yu once boasted at a company party.
Sun Yiran talked of his own attitude in a smaller setting: a person needs to conquer something; putting more attention on “conquering nature” means less attention on subjugating other people.— Cold Ice, Hot Blood, page 84
Sun Yiran’s great dream is to deliver the “King of Icebergs,” a monstrosity bigger than Taiwan, to North Africa and turn the Sahara into fertile farmland. The book makes it fairly clear that this kind of idealism, though necessary, has little chance of success.
As the book opens in 2009, the BE company is making a deal with representatives of the Somali government to deliver an iceberg whose fresh water volume is equivalent to three-fifths of Somalia’s yearly usage. Zheng Jun details the entire process, from the contractual negotiations, team selection, and drive equipment installation to daily life on the iceberg 5-G (seventh iceberg in the fifth year of BE’s operation). The team is an international one; led by Su Yunxia (from whose point of view most of the novel is narrated), most of the members are Chinese, although it also includes a Ugandan, a Korean, and a Netherlander, along with the Somali representative. The foreigners all speak in precise Mandarin, while the Chinese team-members often lapse into their regional dialects, echoing a theme that carries throughout the book: initial judgments are often flawed, and people are often not what they seem. Inventor Sun Yiran is a case in point; by publishing his papers online and even considering running them as ads in magazines, he is more the image of a crackpot scientist than a successful one.
Partway through the voyage, the company receives word of a terrorist threat and orders security forces to all icebergs in transit. The exact nature of the threat is unknown; according to some it is radical religious fundamentalists upset at BE for changing the balance of power in the Middle East, while others finger the Somali opposition. At any rate, terrorism against an iceberg the size of Pitcairn Island is vastly different from an attack against a ship. Bombs would do little; the stresses might shatter the iceberg, but then again they might not. On the other hand, the mere suggestion that the water might not be pure would be enough to turn buyers against the company — no one is thrilled by a delivery of yellow snow.
The security force that is sent to 5-G turns out to be Qin Yu’s nephew Qin Haitao and his group of hoodlums, hiding out for three months on the territorial ambiguity of the iceberg. Su Yunxia immediately dismisses his team and their laughable security measures, especially since they harass a Greenpeace-like inspection group that arrives to check out their environmental protection precautions. Qin Haitao, for his part, dismisses her as nothing more than an intellectual, unable to solve practical problems. In keeping with the theme, they both have a chance to reappraise their initial impressions.
Su makes the decision to rescue a group of refugees, including a pregnant woman, who are found floundering in a primitive boat and who claim to be researches testing whether ancient Indonesians could have reached Madagascar. When the iceberg is approached by another boat, the refugees take some of the 5-G team as hostages and allow the head of the Somali opposition militia to board. This sets the stage for a showdown with the security team. Qin Haitao and his right-hand, an internationally-wanted felon, turn the tables on the terrorists who had expected a leader like Su Yunxia who would back down easily. During the resulting stalemate, it becomes evident that the terrorists know a good deal about BE technology — rather than destroy the iceberg outright, they try to change directions and run it aground on the continental shelf off Madagascar. Su gets her chance to impress Qin when she decides to brave the danger and make a run to disconnect the power source, letting the iceberg drift the rest of the way to Somalia.
During this whole time the iceberg has been in constant communication with the company headquarters by satellite and the rest of the world by live news feed (5-G was to be the subject of a documentary). Zheng Jun conveys the near-panic of the team as they feel isolated in their base; while everyone can hear them, no one can do anything to help. Eventually the cavalry arrives under UN command. The attack is revealed as the plot of a desalinization company trying to sabotage the competition. The entire episode is over in a matter of days, and the iceberg eventually reaches Somalia.
In the characters of Su Yunxia and Qin Haitao, and in a more general sense, the educated engineers and the self-made Qin family, Zheng Jun highlights the problem of “culture” and “civilization” that exists in contemporary Chinese society. Though they are from the same town in the northeast (Qin recognizes Su as an old middle-school classmate toward whom he has nursed a grudge for twenty years), Su and Qin exist in different worlds. Not only do they have different attitudes toward the company, but their very ways of life are completely different. Su continually gets upset at the bad habits the security team has, and Qin is always making sarcastic apologies for his “lack of culture.” It is difficult to imagine Qin discussing with his gangster friends whether it was Mozi or Zhuangzi who told the anecdote about the man who finds a coffin after a flood and sells it back to the dead man’s son; it seems perfectly natural for the scientists to do so (though the punch line here is that it falls to the European to give the correct answer). During the months on the iceberg, however, living in close proximity to each other cuts away the distinctions of class and education level. Qin’s “girlfriend,” actually an escort, is assigned to room with Su, who is surprised to find that she is not really a bad person. The two are soon conversing together in an earthy northeastern idiom. On the other hand, the initial connection Su makes with the “professor” they pick up from the primitive boat turns out to be completely manipulated.
Another large element in the human side of the story is Su Yunxia’s family background. It is gradually revealed as the novel progresses that Su’s father beat both her mother and her older sister; she was spared while young because she had a fragile body and her father did not want the trouble associated with actually killing her. To avoid the violence later on, she took to staying at school. Studying became a means of escape. She stayed single, a fact she attributes to her father’s example — it becomes something of a running joke through the novel that everyone is trying to set her up with a husband.
The novel has the feel of a techno-thriller — set in the near future, the technology is believable yet advanced enough to be a bit of a mystery, and the political situation is handled realistically. Though it starts off a bit slow, the plot quickly picks up once the terrorist threat is announced. The main characters are well-drawn, and the minor characters are distinct. The foreign members of the team have all selected Chinese names (except for the Somali representative), so their individual personalities are forced to be independent of nationality. For an international audience, the particular relationship that exists between former classmates in Chinese society may fail to resonate, and some of the more colorful northeastern expressions may not translate well. The plot and the characters, however, ought to hold up well.
Cold Ice, Hot Blood is currently out of print, but it is available online.