A science museum ought to be a temple to experimentation and odd ways of thinking, because that’s where new knowledge is often born. But you wouldn’t have guessed that an institution as prestigious as the London Science Museum would offer an altar for a literary experiment, though Shackleton’s Man Goes South has plenty of scientific discourse and head-scratching exercises. The 175-page novel by English writer Tony White promotes the opening of a new museum gallery, “Atmosphere: exploring climate science,” by taking up human and scientific themes related to global warming. It’s an interesting, but unsatisfying book that hybridizes non-fiction and fiction approaches to climate change narratives. After a promising start, it winds up in a storytelling cul-de-sac, much like a horse and donkey can lead to a mule, a biological dead-end.
The novel was inspired by two things, according to White: a 1911 speculative story about climate climate by British Antarctic explorer George Simpson, and the world-famous black-and-white movies brought home by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. He never made it to the South Pole, but he gained fame for rescuing his team from certain death, in part by an epic journey by open boat from Antarctica to South Georgia Island. White asks, What if global warming led to an ice-free Antarctica, which becomes the last hope for refugees fleeing climate disasters in Europe and elsewhere? In his story, a mother and child, Emily and Jenny, seek help from a man named Browning to reach the husband and father, who has begun a new life on the formerly frozen continent.
White takes dystopian inspiration from the experiences of today’s immigrants, who risk penury and death as they flee political and economic disasters, as the world has witnessed with the drownings of hundreds of refugees off the coast of Italy in recent weeks. His fiction is vivid and believable, although the final fiction chapter suffers from confusing point-of-view and scene changes. The narrative’s ending would’ve worked if he had stuck to the story arc and dispensed with disorienting 90-degree turns.
The project also stumbles in the non-fiction chapters, which are rehashes of climate change warnings and interviews with scientists going on the same old academic digressions that put everyone to sleep. That’s the main problem with discussions of climate change; they’re deadly dull, smacking of a preacher’s endless harangues against sin, with an inevitable in-one-ear-and-out-the-other impact. Fiction has the potential to address this problem, as White has shown, more or less. Instead of taking bringing his fiction narrative to its full potential, however, White weighs down the book with deadweight chapters, such as one that’s some sort of steampunk paeon to the Science Museum’s London neighborhood, and a final chapter that’s an avant garde satire on the infamous U.S. State Department memo justifying torture in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. What do these pages have to do with understanding the consequences of climate change? Like the fiction ending, they’re orthogonal to the point.
My dad liked to say that you get what you pay for. The London Science Museum gives away Shackleton’s Man Goes South as a downloadable ebook, and I doubt I would’ve purchased the book if given the chance. (You can buy a print copy through the museum gift shop, which is one way to relieve tourists of their money.) Still, I’ll put it on my shelf of titles that make climate change a central theme, because we need more fiction that takes the issue seriously. White is a talented writer, but it will take a superstar storyteller to really drive home the danger we’re facing as a species.
What do you think of the new London Science Museum gallery?