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The Mountain on the planet of Icefall holds the mystery to a lost colony and an irresistible, fatal allure to the climbers of the universe. Maggie is determined to be the first to make the summit. Aisha, injured in a climbing incident herself, has always supported her wife, trusting Maggie would always return from her adventures. But no one ever returns from the Mountain.

114 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 31, 2018

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About the author

Stephanie Gunn

16 books121 followers
Stephanie Gunn is a writer of speculative fiction, occasional reviewer and owner of too many books.

She has been published in various anthologies, including the award-winning Defying Doomsday and Aurum. Her Aurealis award winning novella Icefall is published by Twelfth Planet Press.

She lives in Perth, Western Australia with her family and requisite cat, who cares not for books at all.

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5 stars
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15 (39%)
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Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews
Profile Image for Alexandra.
775 reviews92 followers
November 6, 2018
I do not love mountaineering. I do not like watching it, I do not like reading about it.

I loved this novella. 

(Note: I am friends with the publisher, but that hasn't impacted on my attitude.) 

There is SO MUCH going on in this story, I'm not sure where to start. Obviously I've started with the fact that it involved mountaineering... but that doesn't tell you much. This isn't just a story about climbing mountains, it's about an unbeaten mountain on a harsh planet, and it's about the joys of climbing as well. I don't understand those joys, but I got a glimmer of an idea about them from reading this.

There's only so much mountaineering I would read, though, even from the greatest writer. What really sucked me in here is both the relationship between the characters and the voice of the narrator herself, Aisha. Her relationship with her wife, Maggie, seems straightforward and then slowly reveals all of those complexities and unexpected difficulties that characterise real relationships. Their interactions were loving and troubling and selfish and selfless... how they would react to each other was always a bit ambiguous, to me, and that definitely contributed to the tension. 

Aisha, as the narrator, is the person in whose head the reader spends most time, and she's an appropriately complex person. I loved that Gunn gives us flashbacks to establish a pretty profound backstory for her after we already have a sense of what she's experiencing in the now. She's dealing with old injuries - mental and physical - and she has to watch her beloved risk herself on that damned mountain, while also carrying around some old guilt and questions about identity and worries for the future. Basically I just wanted to sit there and pat her hand to make her feel a bit better about the world.

This is a novella, so it doesn't take long to read. Which is a tragedy, but it also means it's tightly paced - a few slower, character-driven parts, but always with the knowledge of time passing urgently in the story's now. Gunn has put a lot of thought into the universe-building that just gets lightly touched on - just enough to make this seem very well-realised. I can well imagine more stories in the broader universe... and possibly more set on Icefall itself. Which I would read, but I may need a bit of space before doing so. 

Definitely recommended.
Profile Image for Nancy.
932 reviews38 followers
January 23, 2020
Finished: 23.01.2020
Genre: SF novella
Rating: A
At the next book club suggest something completely different
They will be determined NOT to read it
....you could probably crack rocks on their jaws!
But...try to guide them closer into SF!

My Thoughts

Profile Image for Lukasz.
1,310 reviews213 followers
February 8, 2021

An evocative novella about love, mountaineering on terraformed planets, and spirituality in a technological world. I liked it.
Profile Image for Shelley Nolan.
Author 29 books61 followers
November 28, 2018
This science fiction novella was an eerie and evocative read. It is told from the perspective of Aisha as her wife, Maggie, prepares for and then climbs the Mountain. On the planet Icefall, the Mountain is a strange and dangerous environment and no climber has ever survived the climb or even made it to the summit. But Maggie is determined to be the first and Aisha, knowing how much climbing means to her, is along to support her. But she cannot interfere in any way or Maggie’s potential achievement will be invalidated.
Set in the future, it pays homage to the women who conquered mountains on Earth, and it gives glimpses of when Aisha first set eyes on Maggie and was seduced by mountain climbing. The world building is subtle, seamlessly woven into the story, at times making me forget this was science fiction. I was enthralled by the challenges Maggie would face when she began the climb, and by Aisha’s relationship both with her and the AI on their ship. I never knew what to expect, both intrigued and fearful of how the story would end.
In all, this was an interesting read that showed a unique perspective on mountain climbing and how it had formed the relationship between Aisha and Maggie. I was not ready for it to end, and would love to return to the world of Icefall to see what happens when the Mountains weeps once again.
782 reviews5 followers
December 23, 2018
When this opened with uninteresting-to-me commentary on mountains and mountain climbing, I persisted, because I know Gunn's work, and I knew she would have a point to it.

And oh, was it worth it. Amazing depth of world-building, from the real details of mountain climbing, through the hard sf aspects of humans in space, to the subtleties of a religion that didn't feel like a rebadged Christianity. Fascinating protagonist, well rounded other characters. A slowly developing plot that managed to both make obvious where the story would end, and it make sense to keep reading. And beautiful, effortless seeming prose that never, ever, distracted from the detail that was presented.

At times heartbreaking, and others uplifting, this story of two mountain climbers and the lives they live together and apart is well worth it.
Profile Image for Maria Haskins.
Author 49 books122 followers
July 7, 2019
A compelling science fiction story about the connections between us and the world around us, and between each other, about climbing impossible mountains, and about miracles that might be possible. "Icefall" is gripping and quietly devastating in its description of love and longing and loss. The whole novella is fantastic, but the last third of it is just edge-of-your-seat riveting.
Profile Image for Kris Ashton.
Author 31 books5 followers
July 23, 2019
In his non-fiction book On Writing, Stephen King points out that “plumbers in space isn’t such a bad idea for a novel.” In Stephanie Gunn’s talented hands, it turns out “mountain climbers in space” is a pretty fine idea, too.

Icefall is set in an unspecified future, when the earth has been rendered uninhabitable through “earthquakes and war,” and humanity now lives on a series of terraformed colonies. The protagonist, Aisha, is aboard a spaceship with her wife, Maggie, destined for the planet Icefall, which was a thriving colony scientists and religious leaders alike thought could be “a new home, a new Earth” until a natural disaster wiped it out. Maggie, a gifted mountain climber (and supposedly a descendent of famed British mountaineer George Mallory), is on her way to scale the Mountain, Icefall’s tallest peak.

But from the opening lines we get a sense of Aisha’s isolation, both from her wife and the world at large. Most people can now experience life through VIR (virtual interface reality), which is “deeper and brighter and more” than anything regular flesh and blood eyes can offer. Aisha, however, stands among the 0.005% that cannot. Due to a post-traumatic stress disorder she suffers following a mountain climbing incident where she lost her hand to frostbite, her mind rejects the VIR implants.

Prior to losing her hand she had been a priestess of ONE (Order of the New Earth), which believes mountains are part of “the Mother, the creator who watches over us all” and therefore sacred. But her amputation is taken as proof the mountain “bit” her, a sign she’s no longer pure and, thus, ineligible to be a priestess.

We also learn early on that Aisha and Maggie had pieces of their heart muscles harvested, cultured and implanted in their ring fingers, and “the process resulted in the cells always beating with the rhythm of the mother organs.” This is a neat bit of sci-fi, the sort of novelty that’s easy to imagine being popular in a hundred years, but it’s also a convenient plot device that allows Aisha to keep tabs on Maggie when they are separated either physically or via VIR.

As the ship gets closer to Icefall, and Maggie prepares to scale the seemingly insuperable Mountain, Gunn slowly reveals through flashbacks what brought the couple to this point. There are hints threaded throughout the novella that Maggie and Aisha have not been entirely forthcoming with one another and a big twist is imminent. It’s not a bombshell, but it does tie up the forgoing story and attending themes in a neat bow.

Gunn’s narrative is often as cold as its subject matter, perhaps to give the reader a sense of Aisha’s bleak situation. It’s disconcerting at first, especially for a reader who prefers a more “cosy” authorial voice, but after a while the stark imagery and tight prose develop an icy verisimilitude.

On the surface, Icefall is an unconventional love story; an analogue for what it means to be devoted to a person with an all-engulfing obsession or duty. Below that, it meditates on how technology intersects with our lives. We are reminded again and again how the VIR world excludes Aisha. She detests her prosthetic hand, which she describes as feeling “numb” and like “ash” (and at one point it appears to try to strangle her normal arm). When Maggie’s VIR feed ends during a climb, those experiencing it along with her assume she’s dead and simply drop out—an ugly metaphor for the social media age, where people film atrocities on their phones rather than attempt to intervene.

Other technology—such as the holograms that aid and counsel Aisha on the ship, the bots that assist in every aspect of their lives, and a procedure that makes the novella’s climax possible—are viewed in a much more favourable light.

A handful of smaller themes are scattered through the novella—environmentalism and identity among them—but its central question seems to be, “What forms does spirituality take in an overwhelmingly technological world?”

In the midst of writing this review I learned Icefall had won the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novella of 2018. It didn’t surprise me. Gunn pulls off one of the hardest tricks in sci-fi: creating a believable future world and exploring the characters and themes within it while not inundating the reader with needless details.

(This review first appeared in issue #75 of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine.)
Profile Image for Heidi.
307 reviews22 followers
October 27, 2018
When I discovered Twelfth Planet Press had an upcoming novella that featured mountain climbing women in a relationship with each other, I knew this book would be for me. Until I started reading, though, I couldn’t have predicted just how very much this book was my kind of book.

Maggie is on her way to climb the Mountain on the planet Icefall. Her wife, Aisha, will watch over her from their ship, unable to interfere in any way, or Maggie will forfeit being able to claim the summit. Meanwhile fans and followers all over the galaxy have ‘clipped in’ to Maggie’s virtual reality feeds, experiencing the climb along with her, every step of the way.

The way in which this novella was steeped in mountaineering history and technique was what hit me most. I’m an armchair climber - I love reading books about mountaineering. I’d never climb a mountain myself. But I recognised the names, the famous climbs, the points in history that Gunn has chosen to use. There are some very thoughtful choices in Gunn’s use of twentieth and twenty first century climbing woven into this futuristic setting, and I really appreciated those.

The novella takes place in a far future, but Gunn draws on contemporary themes in her world building in a way I really appreciated: naming the robots that assisted Maggie in her climbing “Sherpabots” spoke to me deeply as someone who is aware of the way that the current Sherpa peoples of the Himalayas are exploited by climbing tourists today. The ONE religion of which Aisha is an adherent is another element that I really appreciated. In fact, when I attempted to summarise this book into a single sentence, this was what I came up with: mountaineering space lesbians having religious vocational issues. In other words: this book was unknowingly aimed at me.

I’m absolutely sure that for someone who hasn’t read a lot and watched a lot of documentaries on mountaineering, this book would still be great. The basic premise is interesting, the setting and space opera laments are wonderful. But if, like me, you caught your breath at the name of Maggie and Aisha’s ship - I think you’ll love it even more.
Profile Image for Nirmal Palaparthi.
6 reviews4 followers
December 2, 2021
I was in two minds when I was reading the book. One part of me wanted to race through till the end, the other, wanted me to savour it. This is one immersive read. I was in there. I felt every single emotion, the pain ...
I am so going to wait now for the next book in this series if the author gets to it.
I recalled the question we were posed in school: why climb mountains?
Strongly recommend and don't want to give anything away by way of spoilers.
Profile Image for Rick Mavrick.
29 reviews
October 31, 2018
It's been a while since I read a book with this much focus.

To me, this felt like a Vorkosigan short, like The Flowers of Vashnoi but more focused and heartfelt.
I loved how palpable Aisha's devotion is, to an almost otherworldly Maggie - and the Mountain felt somehow viscerally present at all times - like a haunting (so was excellent Halloween reading :) ) .
Profile Image for Rivqa.
Author 11 books35 followers
December 16, 2019
Gunn's prose is exquisite, and she's packed a lot of thoughtful worldbuilding and plot into this novella. The characters are well drawn, and choosing the 'one who stays behind' as the protagonist is a bold choice that pays off. A haunting, beautiful book.
Profile Image for Clare Rhoden.
Author 23 books39 followers
January 17, 2019
I really enjoyed this book. Fuller review once my reviewing commitments elsewhere allow me to re-post. In the meantime, read it ;-)
Profile Image for Brocc.
856 reviews28 followers
April 3, 2019
4.5 stars. I am just drafting up a review on my blog now, will share soon. But for now, just know that this is amazing.
Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews

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