In Lisa Shapter's novella A Day in Deep Freeze, readers are drawn into a stifling reality through the waking dream of Emran Greene, a man conscripted to work in the Factory that manufactures a truth serum whose side effects were little understood and subsequently covered up in a 1960s Cold War America: "The drug will dash you to pieces if you go without your Beloved, or that first experience, for too long," Emran recalls of its bonding power. "Many of us found it too sweet, too deep an oblivion, a somewhat dishonest way to freshen up a relationship and artificially smooth over its troubles" (p. 28).
As he wakes in the story's present next to a sleeping body he doesn't immediately recognize, Emran believes he is back in his old haunt, the Factory "three stories underground to prevent contamination of the town, the world, Above" (p. 1):
I was Above; I'd been Above for eight years, a year longer than most of my fellow workers from the Factory, all men. I'd been part of an advance party of six that escaped one year earlier than the rest; we'd spent all of that year trying to free the rest through complaints, allegations, attempts at legal action, all futilely. (p. 2)
His companion is his wife, Emily, with whom Emran tries unsuccessfully to start a family. Even though Emran understands that exposure to the drug in the Factory has likely rendered him sterile, he's unwilling to admit to Emily (or, importantly, to himself) that their marriage is a sham.
Shapter explores the relationships at the core of her book through the lens of this world's Above/Below dichotomy: exclusively male in the Factory (those relationships become the source of a disturbing secret Emran must keep from his wife), and exclusively female Above, with its absurd gender stereotypes. Emran muses that "Emily had given a startled laugh the one time I had suggested she sleep in while I do my own morning cooking and dishes. I forgot: in this world men cannot cook or do dishes" (p. 5); Shapter provides other similar scenes in Emran's interaction with Emily, and the irony of those statements generates a sort of probing humor that provides some breathing room in an otherwise claustrophobic story.
That Shapter accomplishes so much in the space of 82 pages is all the more impressive. There's easily enough material here for a novel, particularly in the machinations of the Factory, the details of which remain elusive, doled out in doses that, like the drug Emran is forced to make and carelessly ingest, leave us wanting more. But Shapter's decision for the action to take place over the course of a single day ensures that the story's teetering-on-the-edge brittleness never lapses into the regular, predictable rhythms of much traditional narrative. To do otherwise would dilute the immediacy of Emran's story and the ambivalence he feels as a responsible, workaday accountant in the Above. It would also diminish his other key bond—with Quin, with whom he shared his primary relationship in the Factory, and who is the origin of the cross he bears as a constant reminder of his past.
Shapter's judicious exposition emphasizes Emran's moments of remembrance, which drive the story because they don't get lost in excessive description. Too much backstory would blunt Emran's realization that his days Above are an iterative hell, each spent in much the same psychic "deep freeze." Rather, Shapter uses Emran's experience to explore the larger issues of identity, love, tradition, hegemony, and institutional violence. Emran is constantly reminded by the men who were with him Below, when he runs into them on his Leopold Bloom-like wanderings, that his life has been irrevocably changed by the experience, and an extended sequence where Emran physically threatens the men (and has the threat reciprocated) blurs the boundaries of love and violence. When Quin visits Emran in his sleep near the end of the story, past and present, Above and Below, love and violence, are once again conflated, providing a neat—if disquieting—closure.
Shapter's biography lists Robertson Davies (author of The Cornish Trilogy, among others) as an influence, and her novella fits nicely alongside discussions of the work of Octavia Butler (Kindred), Ursula K. LeGuin (The Dispossessed), and James Tiptree, Jr. (the omnibus Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), all of whose social SF still resonates with readers decades later. The book also brings to mind the fiction of Tillie Olsen (Yonnondio), Tess Slesinger (The Unpossessed), and other writers from the first half of the twentieth century who unflinchingly explored gender and relationships amid the transformative and often destructive influence of technological progress.
But to consider the linked vignettes in A Day in Deep Freeze as merely a study in gender politics would be a disservice to Shapter's far-reaching talent—and to her mordant view of the state of things in an alternate Cold War America which, revealed layer by layer, feels unnervingly contemporary. Shapter has proven her chops with a handful of short stories and novellas. Would that the author's next effort be a full-length novel as skillfully rendered.
Patrick A. Smith is an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine and the author of "The true bones of my life": Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O'Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collections Conversations with Tim O'Brien and Conversations with William Gibson, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and fiction in Abyss & Apex, SF Site, and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Havana, Florida.