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Antarctica
Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Books, 511 pages

Antarctica
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

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Antarctica is a rousing book: the exact reaction may vary according to the reader's outlook, but indifference should not be among the emotions it evokes. Not that it reads like a thriller -- but it takes its readers on an endlessly fascinating voyage to a little-known land. In many ways, this novel is to Robinson's Mars Trilogy what Antarctica is to Mars: smaller in scale, closer at hand, and not so sexy -- but uncannily alike in several regards.

It may seem ironic that Mars, millions of kilometres away, has been known to humanity far longer than Antarctica, an entire continent on our own planet. Mars has been a place in our imagination, accreting myths, unlikely speculations -- half-glimpsed channels spawning canals spawning little green men dropping in for a visit -- and numberless science fiction tales. The Antarctic, though it bred a few legends now forgotten when it was being looked for as the Terra Australis, has been much more of a blank to be filled in later. Few science fiction stories have been set there. While it has hosted its share of lost worlds, as far back as De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), it's been mostly a secondary setting, as in Alexander and Sergei Abramov's Riders from Nowhere. Lately, the Antarctic has attracted new attention for its resemblance to Mars: the cold, the lack of life, the extremely thin and dry air of the high plateaus, averaging altitudes over 2,000 metres... And, of course, for the Martian meteorites found there.

(How inconceivably cold it was in Antarctica for visiting Englishmen is shown by the fact that, last May, Scott's last polar journal was still exhibited at the British Library along with a note that Scott's return from the pole became difficult when "temperatures fell below 40 degrees F", even though Scott's written entry just above clearly speaks of -40 degrees...)

Whereas the Mars Trilogy's challenge was to tell in a new way the old dream of Martian settlement, Robinson tackled virgin expectations in this novel. The resulting story shares a number of the virtues and vices with the trilogy.

The pace is slow, burdened with geological and geographical descriptions which may bore some readers to tears; yet, they are essential for establishing the sense of place, which is so much more necessary for a place few of us have travelled to, even in our imagination. Robinson draws on a six-week stay in Antarctica and conveys masterfully the Antarctic's other-worldly grandeur. Though Robinson manages to build some suspense, the action only gets going halfway through the book, once we have been properly introduced to Antarctica.

The emphasis on political argument may not be to everybody's taste. Robinson replays some of the debates featured in the Mars Trilogy: sustainable development versus deep ecology, the built-in inequities of capitalism, the superiority of co-ops, the general meeting used as a set-piece for the airing of divergent views... Opposing viewpoints are handled skillfully, but, however laudable the author's intentions, some readers may not have the patience for the earnestness or for the trend of Robinson's argumentation. Yet, why should science fiction shy away from discussing which future we may still choose?

The characters are a mixed bunch. Again, it's hard not to spot characters from the Mars Trilogy, reprising their past roles. Viktor, the Russian scientist from Vostok base, is a dead ringer for the enthusiastic Bogdanov in Red Mars, genial and boisterous, full of schemes and brotherly ideals. The various groups attempting to become native inhabitants of the Antarctic inescapably bring to mind the clandestine factions of Green Mars, especially the ones living beneath the ice cap of the Martian... South Pole.

On the other hand, the scientists are quite unlike the boyish Sax Russell of the Mars Trilogy. To portray their activities, Robinson resorts to a sociological view of science, appealing to the kind of metaphors used by French sociologist Bruno Latour to capture the doings of workaday researchers. And the main characters -- the mountaineering guide Valerie Kenning, the Washington political attache Wade Norton, the visiting artist from China, Ta Shu, and the young, lumbering, well-meaning X -- are definitely fresh creations.

Though all are rather low-key, they manage to sustain the reader's interest through the uneventful first half of the book. If, at times, the narration turns into a travelogue, it's a damn fine travelogue. The guided tour of the ice-entombed South Pole research station is a genuine hoot. Robinson weaves in the epic stories of the old Antarctic explorers: Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard... And then, he hits us with the harsher realities of Antarctica.

The organized sabotage of Antarctic bases by radical conservationists strands the main characters in the midst of an unforgiving environment. The story takes off when the characters actually land on Antarctica. Until then, the heroes, protected from their surroundings by technology, had been skimming over the landscape without touching down. When the fragile infrastructure disappears, things become hairy. Kenning's adventure travel group must seek shelter and help after an accident, while Norton and X try to get back to McMurdo base along with workers from a company lured by the prospect of exploiting the continent's valuable natural resources, namely oil... Through snow, ice, and blizzard, travelling by foot, ski, helicopter, hovercraft or blimp, all must face an alien world head-on.

This is by far the most compelling part of the narrative, and the one where the intertwined beauty and brutality of Antarctica are most immediate. Robinson brings an unerring realism to the portrayal of his characters' travails and the stakes of the subsequent debate over the future of the Antarctic are made that much more visceral. In the end, Antarctica may not persuade, but it will inhabit the memory of some readers for a long time...

Readers looking for novelty and expecting Robinson to strike out in startlingly new directions will be disappointed. On the other hand, the book's many themes are handled with undeniable competence and those it shares with the Mars Trilogy are deepened, broadened, and brought much closer to home. Even if it drags at times and might have been a tauter story, Antarctica is a memorable read, seasoned with Robinson's dry wit, and an invitation to think of our planet's most alien continent.

Copyright © 1998 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.


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