Review: Giving the Cold Shoulder to Antarctica

Antarctica cover

Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve been a fan of master science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson ever since the Mars Trilogy, which dealt with terraforming the Red Planet. Now that humanity is engaged in an accidental terraforming experiment on its own world, it was the right time for me to read Antarctica, one of Robinson’s lesser-known novels. I was curious how he treated the changes sure to come to the South Pole, because I’m looking at a similar scenario in my own current project, The Princes of Antarctica.

Published in 1997, Robinson’s story takes place more than 50 years later, just after the expiration of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty and several other agreements set aside the entire continent as a nature and science reserve. But the politics of preservation versus wealth creation stalls renewal of the treaty, and a series of unexplained incidents sparks an informal investigation by an aide of an influential senator with progressive leanings. Robinson weaves his trademark mix of science, history, politics, and human aspiration into a sprawling narrative. Climate change overhangs the novel, making it an early example of the climate fiction / nature fiction genre.

Much of the novel’s material derives from Robinson’s experience as a 1995 participant in the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program. In his book, Robinson has worked out every possible way to describe ice, ice fields, glaciers, mountains covered in ice, and being buried in ice. The ice-related words “firn,” “sastrugi,” and “nanutuk” are burned into the reader’s vocabulary. Robinson makes geology the marquee science of Antarctica, rarely mentioning the penguins and seals that dominate other fictional and non-fictional treatments of the South Pole.

His characters are workmanlike: the lonely bureaucrat, the amazonian mountaineer, the misfit jack-of-all-trades, and the get-r-done administrator. How Robinson got one major character’s name past the editor–just “X”, nothing more–escapes me. At critical moments, some characters make single-paragraph speeches that go on for a page or more (in my EPUB edition) using language no human would use in formal conversation, much less casual conversation. Robinson explains too much and shows too little, at least when it comes to the human-on-human dynamic.

Robinson leaves the best part of the story until the novel’s last third: a conflict between factions of “ferals,” an emerging culture of emigres from the capitalist north determined to make a new start in a fresh land. It’s a redux of Plymouth Colony and a hundred other utopian visions that Americans love. But he wastes an opportunity. Here’s the question Robinson should have asked: How does a warming world treat the last wild land on earth? Instead, he makes the fighting ferals one bit of a puzzle whose pieces don’t fit very well. And as one of the factions goes about destroying property and endangering lives, Robinson appears to suggest that the tactic might be okay to save the seventh continent from exploitation, as long as nobody gets hurt. Of course, somebody will get hurt or killed eventually, if we turn a blind eye to extremists using dynamite.

Nonetheless, the idea of people going to huge lengths to “start over” in a wild environment is compelling. Robinson’s ferals are more than fantasy; there’s a small but vocal anarchist faction calling for “re-wilding,” expressed in part by learning and practicing stone age skills and beliefs. In The Princes of Antarctica, I’m using these ideas in a group of Antarcticans I label “primitives” or “prims” (a derogatory term in the dominant Antarctic culture) of a 22nd century South Pole. I like it as a way to explore how some humans might pioneer a new land where night and day are divided into six-month intervals. The way things are going, it’s definitely a possible scenario.

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