Antarctica • 1997 • CliFi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson



Synopsis: It’s the early 21st century, and the U.S. American base at McMurdo is chock-full with scientists and tourists, managed by the NSF. The Antarctic Treaty isn’t renewed, and South American countries conduct secret explorations for ressources like oil or methane gas. Communities which went native and propagate an indigenious life in the Antarctis try to stay out of sight of official monitoring, some of them ecoteurs preparing for ecotage.

Against this background, the author places an interesting cast of characters, telling the story from multiple POVs: It starts with “X”, a General Field Assistant at McMurdo who is quite unhappy with the working conditions there – Robinson uses him to push his idea of cooperative work. Then there is Wade Norton, an aide from environmentalist U.S. senator Phil Chase, to uncover some ecotage incidents in the Antarctis. Val – a Valkyrie like strong beauty – is the ex-lover of X, a mountaineer leading a touristic group on a quite dangerous journey in the footsteps of Amundsen. Lastly, Ta Shu is a Chinese geomancer and former poet, returning to Antarctica to bring a multi-media diary for the Chinese audience. Several other protagonists – pseudo indigenous people, and scientists – are introduced to advance the story.

The story is quite easy: a travel over several stations in Antarctica to relive Amundsen’s and Scott’s journeys enters catastrophe after failure; this and Wade’s investigations show us the most important protagonist: Antarctica itself with Amundsen’s and Scott’s South Pole Station, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and the Shackleton Glacier to name just a few bring the landscape alive.

Review: Robinson wrote this novel after a six weeks stay with the US Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writers’ Program. One can feel his artistic familiarity with the novel’s topics at every page and it certainly manifests in his famous and fascinating landscape descriptions. The plot isn’t KSR’s strength, and I’d never read his works to find a thriller. I always come back to him because there are few authors who can bring a site like New York, Mars or in this case the South continent to life like him. Expect breathtaking descriptions of a grand but alien continent, overburdened with facts and details thwarting the pace. When he told about the Airdevronsix Icefalls, one of the world’s most impressive natural landmarks, and the Don Juan pond (a hyoersaline lake with 33% salt compared to some 3% in the sea; that’s the second saltiest sea in the world and it might have been gone already), I knew that I totally felt in love with the continent and this book.

One example which was a pure joy to read was Wade jumping buck-naked into a pitch black ice slide 300 meters down into a steaming whirlpool; South Pole station engineers carved out this fun slide using a powerful drill:

“Will it be dark all the way?” Wade said, peering down the hole.
“Black as the pit. Have a good ride. ”
Wade took a step up and sat his bare bottom on the ice. “Jesus. ”
“Have fun!” Spiff shouted, and gave him a push and he was off, sliding on his bottom. Then the tube dropped away in the blackness and he was on his back, like a luge rider. In fact it had all the qualities of luge-insane speed, rapid turns left and right, up and down, but mostly down, down down down in gutfloating no-g drops, sliding in a stream of warm water over cold slick ice, and all in pitch blackness so
there was no way of telling where he would go next. He yowled. The cold of the ice seemed less severe as he sped up, but the air rushing over him was freezing. He shouted again at a heartstopping drop and right turn, you could crack your skull! Except he didn’t.
Three or four more dramatic turns and he began to enjoy himself. Then he was flying through free space, and he shrieked just as he plunged into boiling water. His skin went nova, especially along his bottom and back.

He shot up spluttering and took several gasping breaths, shouting once or twice between them, treading water desperately. It was pitch black, he could see nothing.
“Must be the senator. ”
“Just stand up, man. “

The novel is well embedded in KSR’s oeuvre: senator Phil Chase has a prominent role in the Science in the Capital trilogy – he’s very loosely based on Al Gore. Ta Shu reappears far more active and interesting in Red Moon, connecting the Chinese world and understanding to the moon. Some say that Antarctica is a prequel to the Mars trilogy, but I don’t see that. All of the characters were top-notch described and I could connect well to their problems, hopes and expectations.

KSR’s recurring topics are environmentalism, sustainable life in a hostile environment versus deep ecology, the philosphy of science, Work2.0, and exploitation of nature. He embedded these multiple dimensions in a Hard SF perspective masterfully within this travelogue of a story. Sometimes, the discussions went on lengthy, but I found them worthwhile following because the arguments were certainly interesting.

First it was capitalism versus socialism, and then capitalism versus democracy, and now science is the only thing left! And science itself is part of the battlefield, and can be corrupted.

One issue that interested me most was the climatic change hitting the Antarctica. It currently breaks up the Ross Ice Shelf where several major glaciers drain the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the sea with a potential sea level rise of 5 meters (which is the setting of Robinson’s New York 2140). In the farther future, the far larger east Antarctic iceshelf might follow – with a potential of rising sea levels 60 meters. The predicted breaking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is happening right now and intensively watched in the last couple of years since 2014. The reason for this accelerated process is that glaciers aren’t rested on bedrock any more and rapidly break apart. Jeff Goddell – author of the wonderful “The Water Will Come” – talks about this phenomenon in a lecture from 2019 (24:40 his visit to Thwaites Glacier and the impressive drama with ice cliff instability presented 29:30 and the following destabilization because the cork in the bottle is pulled – ending around 33:30) but the whole scientific community monitors Thwaites Glacier currently. Yes, and I need to watch Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary “Encounters at the End of the World“.

The histories of Scott’s, Amundsen’s, and Shackleton’s journeys, their search for honor, risking death for their visions, are embedded in the narration, mostly as dialogues. This might qualify as information drops, but I loved their exciting quests. In Scott’s case not only one version but a positive and a negative one. According to Tsa Shu, everyone chooses the colour he wants to interpret history:

“All stories are still alive, ” he said. “All stories have colors in them. ” He looked
around at them, an older man from a different culture, weathered and strange, incongruous in his red parka. “This present moment-this is clear. ” […] “The past-all stories. Nothing but stories. All colored. So we choose our colors. We choose what colors we see. “

The author seems to manifest mostly in Tsa Shu’s voice – his strange, feng shui analysis, his open-minded and ever positive discussions, and most prominent, his short poems sprinkling the narration consisting mostly of color words – of course, KSR wrote those himself. They transport a special emotion, and one of them I liked most:

white white white
white green white
white white white

I came to love Tsa Shu’s character in Red Moon which I read earlier this year, and was very happy to have him back again.

Before I read this book, I thought Antarctica as a cold but bland place. KSR managed that I still feel a bit chilly. But I don’t think that Antarctica is uninteresting anymore – the book let me fall in love with the continent. Mars is talked about a lot and has manifested in lots of SF novels – Antarctica in contrast was a target a hundred years ago to pioneers like Amundsen, Scott, or Shackleton, and then mostly forgotten to SF authors. This book brings back the fascination for a part of our own world which is not as out of reach as those planets.

Meta: isfdb. Second place in Locus award.

This entry was posted in Novel, Science Fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s