For Alexander Velitzyn, passion is cold and ice feels warm.
The protagonist in Russian-born, Seattle-acclimated J.M. Sidorova’s novel, “The Age of Ice,” Velitzyn is the wild card in a story that would otherwise read as historical fiction. Born in a bed of ice, Velitzyn cannot feel cold. Sometimes he is the cold. He is also immortal.
Based on a strange piece of 18th-century history, “The Age of Ice” (Scribner, 416 pp., $26) takes readers on a tumultuous journey with Velitzyn on an Arctic expedition — by way of Persia, Siberia, India, Afghanistan — in pursuit of a scientific explanation for his abnormalities.
Like Velitzyn’s life, the novel — Sidorova’s first — spans centuries. It begins in 1740, when Russia’s empress Anna Ionovna ordered a bed of ice blocks to be constructed for the consummation of the marriage of two jesters. This once-real ice palace was reconstructed in St. Petersburg in 2006.
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“The Age of Ice” incorporates elements which are enabled by Sidorova’s scientific background. When Velitzyn experiences extreme emotions such arousal or rage, he becomes like the ice he was conceived upon. This cold slows down his body’s processes, contributing to his immortality.
Sidorova studies human cells — notably, cellular biology of aging and carcinogenesis — as a biomedical research scientist at the University of Washington. Born in Moscow, she attended Moscow State University and graduate school at the Russian Academy of Sciences. She moved to Seattle in 1990; Gas Works Park is her favorite spot to write.
Q: I’ve heard “The Age of Ice” described as science fiction or fantasy, but to me it read like historical fiction with those elements woven in. What genre were you intending when you wrote it?
A: I was intending it as more of a hybrid of historical fiction with a little bit of those elements. I tend to go with magical realism, but that doesn’t always convey or really speak to people.
Q: Why did you want to blend those different elements together?
A: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I can’t really stick to plain old reality, it just seems to me that without those additions there is little light in it. But in this particular novel I knew where I wanted it to begin — a factual event. So that was what anchored me to 1740.
Q: I was reading another interview in which you said you read an article in The New Yorker about this historical bed of ice. What fascinated you so much that you decided to write an entire book off that premise?
A: Two things fascinated me. One — the exoticism and sophistication of cruelty, the dark circus that the whole endeavor was. The palace was an achievement of art and at the same time, a prison chamber that brought misery upon two jesters. Second — that the symbolism behind that palace was so persistent and strong that it pushed back into reality 260 years later, as if a culture felt a compulsion to recreate, relive, reconquer, reinterpret it (the replica ice palace was recreated in 2006). It spoke to me of timelessness, of history that is not a straight path but rather a wandering in a wood of one’s cultural symbols and haunts.
Q: In the book there seems to be this equation of ice and cold with immortality. Is that linked with your job as a biomedical scientist at the University of Washington?
A: Well, a little bit. There are all kinds of metaphors in there … There is actually an equation that explains to you how chemical processes and biological processes are slowed down with colder temperature. With the colder temperatures it just gets slower and slower and slower, and immediately you begin to think about the extension of life or longevity. I just wanted Alexander to witness a lot and that automatically made his life long and it was convenient that I could bring it in.
Q: What gave you the idea for Alexander to become ice-cold when he is aroused or experiencing strong emotions?
A: A regular person gets “heated up” — when we think about it, rage is hot and passion is hot, so I just inverted it.
Q: In his quest to find out why he is the way he is, Alexander travels to so many exotic places. What is your favorite adventure of his?
A: Hard to say, I think I like all of them. I think my favorite currently probably is actually Siberia, just because that was the hardest to actually put together.
Q: Do you read very much history or historical fiction in your spare time?
A: I did read history. I don’t read much historical fiction … I prefer nonfiction historical books. I often read for research but that is a bit different.
Q: What authors are you most influenced by?
A: Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges. Among the more obscure Russian writers: Andrei Platonov, Sasha Sokolov.
Q: Was there a specific event or moment in the book when you really had to come to terms with being a scientist versus a writer?
A: There is a moment in the story when the protagonist “glaciates” for the first time, turns into ice. In that state he is found by his friend, a naturalist and a consummate scientist. After being found frozen solid and hacked out of an ice structure he is part of, our protagonist begins to show signs of life, which very much discombobulates the naturalist, Dr. Merck, who found him.
The whole scene was a challenge for me. I needed to find a realistic way Dr. Merck would react to this obviously miraculous, magical event. It was really a standoff, where realism in the book clashed with magic. … And so this was the place where the scientist in me was a disabling, erosive voice, which kept saying: it is not possible, this is an absurd situation. But I persisted. I relied on a “scientific” explanation to the way we react to something that is ostensibly miraculous and inexplicable. So who won in the end? A scientist or a fantasist? I don’t know.
Q: What are some of the things you do as a biomedical scientist?
A: I study human cells and pretty much how one cell makes two. One of those very important stages of cell division is where the cells get cellular DNA. Believe it or not there are actually 6 feet of DNA in every cell in the body. Human DNA is divided into 46 pieces in every human cell. There is a lot that can go wrong in the process, and that is what I study. There are tiny things that can go wrong during that process and it’s like the ripples in the water when you throw a stone, they just get bigger and bigger until it can be a manifestation of cancer if too many things go wrong.
Q: What other hobbies and interests do you have?
A: I paint occasionally. And keeping with the old-fashioned, I paint in oil. A couple years ago I trained with a Russian professional artist in the Rembrandt style. I also like gardening over the summer here in Seattle. Bicycles, kayaks that kind of thing. That’s why Seattle is great this time of year.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
A: My readers are very different people who come to the book from very different angles. I do hope that there will be something for different people to take home. There is Russian history in it … there is romance, an overarching story, and I hope they would find satisfaction in that too. I hope there are different things for people to find in it, and not necessarily the things that were my most favorite.