A group of people live in a cocoon, deep inside a mountain. They've been there for 700,000 years, controlling their population by introducing a death-time, ie. when a person reaches the age of 35 they are sent outside to die. *Outside* there is an ice age brought on by the fall of 'death stars' onto the planet Earth. But the long winter is coming to an end. The female chief of the clan, Koshmar, is going to be the one to lead her tribe of 60 out of the caves and into the sunlight. What will they find?
Koshmar has the Chronicler, Thaggoran, to help her, and Torlyri, the offering-woman. And then there's Hresh, 8 years old and the boy who asks questions... a born Chronicler if ever there was one. They have a handful of warriors to protect them too, but still this will be the hardest thing they ever do.
Once outside they walk... and walk. They are beset by various problems. Some of the creatures they come across are dangerous and they lose some of their friends, including the Chronicler, Thaggoran. This is a devastating loss as he is the one guiding them with his knowledge of the chronicles. It falls to Hresh to take his place and become 'the old man' of the tribe at 8 years old.
It's written in the chronicles that the tribe's future will start with finding the ruins of the city of Vengiboneeza, the ancient capital that belonged to the sapphire-eyed people, one of the six sentient peoples of the Old World. Their journey is long and hazardous and as they travel Hresh has to grow up very quickly and find the answers to many questions. But it's in the city of Vengiboneeza that Hresh will really come of age and find the answer to all of his unanswered questions.
I didn't realise this was an Earth-based sci-fi story until the river close to where the cocoon was situated was described, its previous names mentioned, and one of them was the Mississippi. I'd previously thought it was an alien planet yarn, I've no idea why... the cover of the book looks very alien perhaps.
Anyway, regardless of that, I found this book reminding me of why I love classic sci-fi writers so much. Actually this book is not that old - it was written in 1988 - it just *feels* much older, as though it could have been written in the 50s or 60s. And that's not down to the plot because that's quite modern in feel... the chief of the clan being a female, the sexuality described (not explicit but definitely all kinds of sexuality included) and so on. I think it's the quality of the writing that made it feel older. It's beautifully written, *intelligently* written... it wasn't a book I could whip through quickly at all.
I think perhaps the world building felt like it was from an older decade too. Silverberg spent a lot of time inventing new species, the six sentient species of the old world were interesting and imaginative, though I didn't feel that all of them worked: the plant people didn't sound feasible to me. That didn't matter as the story wasn't about them, it was about how the world had changed since they had died out and how the new 'people' were going to establish a new civilisation. I loved the old city of Vengiboneeza... and found Hresh's explorations of it and his slightly shocking discoveries fascinating. The characters felt real to me, with many foibles and twists to their personalities, none of them perfect. *Maybe* Hresh was a very old 8 year old but that didn't bother me overly.
All in all I absolutely loved this book and have already sent for its sequel, <em>The New Springtime</em>. It reminded me of why I love science fiction so much... because it takes me to places I could never imagine where I never really know what will happen next. And I wonder if sci-fi fans are born not made? From a very early age, 4 or 5, I can remember being fascinated by talk of space exploration and other planets. Star Trek, when it arrived in the UK in 1969 (I was 16) felt like the answer to a prayer and as natural to me as breathing. Others have no interest in sci-fi whatsoever and think those of us who do are a very weird bunch indeed (Fern Britton on Room 101 on Friday night for instance). Each to his (or her) own.
I'm hoping to read a couple more books for the sci-fi experience... the one I'm told I really must get to from my pile (by Susan from <a href=">You Can Never Have Too Many Books</a>) is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. But there're a couple of others too. I may end up carrying on my sci-fi reading way past the end date of the 'experience'.