by Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra


510pp/$24.95/July 1998

Cover by P.A. Nisbet

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica was written as an offshoot of his "Mars" trilogy.  When Robinson was researching the Mars books, he heard that Antarctica's dry valley's were the closest Earth got to Mars.  His application for a grant to travel to Antarctica for research was turned down because the grant stipulated that the resulting work was required to be about Antarctica.  Robinson decided to re-submit the application and write a novel about Antarctica.  This application was approved.

What resulted was a novel which is more a travelogue and sight-seer's guide to Antarctica than a novel.  The plots, such as they are, could easily have been fit into a book the quarter of the length of Antarctica.  Robinson includes three main characters:  X, an Antarctican everyman (?) who performs the menial labor at McMurdo Station, Val, X's ex-girlfriend who leads tourist expeditions into the Antarctic outback, and Wade Norton, a senatorial aide who is sent on a fact-finding mission to Antarctica in response to a series of hijackings.  These three character's and their stories are all tied together.  Although all three are likable, they seem to be placed merely to allow Robinson to show off the wonders of Antarctica.   Robinson's really interesting characters, the globe-trotting, telecommuting Senator Chase and the Russian Viktor, only appear briefly, leaving the reader wanting to know more about them.

Where Robinson most fully succeeds is in his descriptions of Antarctica as a beautiful place.  Frequently as I read the novel, I found myself wishing it would be feasible to take a trip to, if not the South Pole, at least McMurdo Station (it can be done, but costs about $5,000 for a two week trip, plus airfare, food, etc.).  He does an extremely good job of describing the various glaciers, mountains, islands, etc.  He does romanticize them somewhat.  A photograph of McMurdo Station reveals it to be a small frontier town.  It actually reminded me a little of Roslyn, Washington, where "Northern Exposure" was filmed.  About the only place Robinson fails in his descriptions is that there is no real tactile sensation.  I never felt the coldness which the characters must have felt, nor the physical exertion as they dealt with one of Antarctica's storms.

Robinson uses his novels to forward his whole agenda, notably the care of our ecosystem.  This was central to the debate between those who wanted to terraform Mars or leave it natural in the "Mars" trilogy and it is important in Antarctica as well.  Behind the plotlines and travelogue is the idea that the Antarctic Treaty has come up for renewal.  With the discovery of resources in Antarctica, there is less incentive to leave the continent as a scientific haven.  Robinson handles extraction crews, scientists, eco-warriors, and a band of Antarctic "aborigines" deftly as each explains how they are going to exploit Antarctica while leaving it a pure and uncontaminated continent.

Robinson is generally considered to be a science fiction author.  Antarctica has more the feel of a mainstream novel.  Set entirely on Earth in the near future, Antarctica does not seem to be as cut off from the rest of the world as I assume it currently is.  Technology is also at a slightly higher level.  Wade is able to contact his senator via wrist phone any time and from any point in Antarctica.

Antarctica is a cautionary tale of the dangers of taking our environment for granted.  Robinson drives home this point through the voice of Carlos who states that "What is true in Antarctica is true everywhere else."  Robinson is never particularly subtle about trumpeting his causes, and the reader feels as if the important message of Antarctica can be boiled down to Robinson's suggestion for a revised Antarctic Treaty which is expounded in the final chapter.

Antarctica doesn't work as a novel, but it still is an interesting book.  Part polemic and part travelogue, Robinson uses the last continent to explain why it is important for humans to be more in touch and careful about their abuse of the earth's resources and environment.  Worth reading for his descriptions of Antarctica, the reader must be ready to take those descriptions with a healthy dose of Robinson's environmental agenda.

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