Absorbed by the whiteness

by Marie Darrieussecq
translated from French by Ian Monk

I added this to my wishlist when it was first published in English, on the back of a blog review (probably Savidge Reads, but I now forget). It was always going to appeal to me: scientists and engineers in Antarctica, international collaboration, humour and romance. But somehow it stayed sat on my wishlist for years.

Earlier this year Tim and I finally made it to Shakespeare & Co in Paris (we’d been to Paris before but hadn’t squeezed in the bookshop). I wanted to buy something translated from French and this title immediately came to mind. Amazingly, it was right there in their surprisingly small translated-from-French section. Of course, this means it has the awesome Shakespeare & Co stamp on the title page so I was never going to get rid of the book no matter how it turned out. But thankfully I do really like it.

The story (written in 2003) is set in a near future where people communicate via 3D holograms, the first manned mission is on its way to Mars, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is under construction. (This last, arguably the entire basis for the story, does betray some lack of knowledge of Antarctic history – unless the translator has omitted the key modifier “pan-European”, which would be a first. Several European countries have their own permanent Antarctic bases.)

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A man is no better for having made the worst journey in the world

worst journey in the worldThe Worst Journey in the World
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Wow. Just wow. Perhaps I’m biased by my pre-existing fascination with polar exploration, but this is an incredible book. Or rather, it reaches the very limits of credibility but does not overstep them, for I do not think that Cherry exaggerates at all. Humans beings have been through worse at the hands of other human beings, but not at the hands of nature.

This is a big book, but I tore through it in less than a week, foregoing most of my television and internet-pottering time because I just had to get back to this gripping story. For a day after finishing it I was reluctant to start another book or experience any other story. I wanted to sit with this tale of hardship and suffering in the name of science, of men who willingly endured that humankind might benefit. It is inspiring.

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Who doesn’t love penguins?

Penguins on Film
Public lecture at Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol, 4 September

Tim and I (mostly Tim) have a small obsession with Antartica. When we went to Cambridge last year a visit to the Scott Polar Museum was a must, higher even than the Wren Library (only just). We have amassed a small collection of books about the continent and record every TV programme about it.

Some books about Antarctica

I can’t speak for Tim, but for me one of the attractions of Antarctica is undoubtedly penguins. (Yes yes, I know they live elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere too, even hot places. You can blame film for the association of penguins only with the extreme cold. Apparently.) They are brilliantly characterful animals. However hard you try not to anthropomorphise, watching them waddle along is unfailingly funny. Yet in water they are hypnotically elegant.

Clearly I am not alone in this love. Tonight’s lecture “Penguins on Film” was actually part of the 8th International Penguin Conference but was open to the general public and between the two interest groups the (pretty magnificent) Great Hall at the Wills Building was crammed full. The panellists gave five short talks about some very different experiences of penguins.

emperor penguin
Image source

The main presenter was Lloyd Davis, a world authority on penguins and engaging speaker to boot. He talked about how some misconceptions and misinformation about penguins stem from and are perpetuated by film, from the earliest footage 100 years ago by Frank Hurley (comedic, unnatural behaviour) to March of the Penguins (models of family values? Penguins don’t mate for life, they pick a new partner every season and aren’t necessarily faithful to that one) and many a cartoon in-between (inaccurate habitats or mixes of species).

While this was all a lot of fun, I kinda already knew all this and there’s an extent to which the portrayal of penguins as comedic does some good in engaging public interest. As the rest of the presenters proved, you can use penguins as a starting point to talk about climate change, how science is done, filming techniques and even new robotics technology.

Elizabeth White from the BBC Natural History Unit talked about some of the challenges of filming penguins for the TV series Frozen Planet. It was fantastic to see some clips from that show on a cinema-sized screen and in retrospect it showed the real contrast between BBC footage and basically anyone else!

The tough job of following that fell to Sue Murray of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust who showcased a video made in 1939 by amateur ornithologist Lance Richdale of an endangered penguin species that led both to the charity that works to protect the birds and also to a tourism industry that generates millions of dollars for a remote part of New Zealand. Sadly it’s a more interesting story than film, though it was fun to see Richdale’s wife weighing penguin chicks like you might a human baby.

Phil Trathan from the British Antarctic Survey spoke about how he and a colleague used satellite imagery and aerial photography to identify penguin colonies and to track changes in those colonies over the last five years. It was interesting to hear that, while initially his work led to a doubling of the estimated number of emperor penguins (because satellites can see areas basically inaccessible by land), it has also revealed the loss of whole colonies where sea ice is drastically reduced year on year as a result of climate change.

Finally, Bristol University’s very own Peter Barham and Tilo Burghardt demonstrated how the spycams embedded in penguin robots created for the TV series The Spy in the Huddle have been adapted for scientific research uses such as identifying what species of penguin it is looking at or even recognising individual African penguins by the pattern of spots on their chests. Sadly they didn’t have time to explain why this is useful (here’s a video Peter Barham made earlier), though they did find time for a fun demo of the robot’s new ability to recognise human emotions by getting a volunteer up on stage to pull faces at the spycam. No doubt this too will have extrapolations for biological research. If only there had been more than an hour!

More of the cold stuff

by Kim Stanley Robinson

I seem to be on a bit of an Arctic/Antarctic bent – had you noticed? After the last two titles I read, Tim suggested this as an appropriate follow-on and it did indeed fit in well. A lot of the history of Antarctica, especially the famous great expeditions of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, is recounted here amidst the near-future politics and sometimes scary tale of global warming and eco-terrorism.

Robinson is good at this sort of ensemble cast, giving voice to several characters to give a real overview to a situation without it being obvious that’s what’s going on. Each perspective is distinct and interesting, which I think shows in that each time it switched I was briefly disappointed to be leaving a story thread but then within a page I’d be completely caught up in the next thread.

Despite all the talk about Antarctica being the continent of science, and the scientists therefore at the top in terms of social status, they are the one group we don’t really get to know. Instead Robinson gives voice to the “other people”, a lot of whom (if not all of whom) support the science.

X is a general field assistant, essentially a dogsbody doing whatever work is assigned to him. He is very aware that he is at the bottom of the social strata and longs for change but loves Antarctica too much to leave. He used to date Val, in fact they had a bit of an ugly break-up, which is colouring his world view somewhat and she wishes he would get over it.

Val is a guide, a strong, athletic, experienced outdoors type who leads expeditions “in the footsteps of…”. She is uber-fit and uber-capable and sometimes struggles to hide her impatience with those less fit and capable. She is also fed up with the male attention she gets being a young, attractive woman on a continent with three men to every woman.

Wade Norton is an adviser to Senator Phil Chase (both of whom pop back up in Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy), and is sent down to Antarctica to investigate rumours of eco-terrorism and the effects of the breakdown of the Antarctic Treaty. The pair have humorous phone conversations that belie the complex politics they are discussing.

There’s also Ta Shu, the initially silly-seeming Chinese poet and Feng Shui expert, whose calm, steady positivity is infectious; and a mysterious eco-warrior who can no longer stand idly by as the global warming situation gets worse and worse, with sea levels rising and extreme weather events frighteningly frequent.

The story fluctuates from positive to negative, from calm to stormy. The icy continent is both a place of unparalleled beauty and of incomparable danger. Extreme tourists who have climbed Everest and the Matterhorn are challenged to the point of misery. Global warming has accelerated alarmingly and at the same time the world population has exploded and first-world governments have all but abandoned attempts to mitigate their emissions. But there are still people trying to do good, seeing the beauty of the world.

This was an exciting, moving read but I did skim some of the hard science bits (there’s a geophysics controversy that is an accurate portrayal of how science works but I must admit I found it dull) and I did get frustrated at the US bias. The two biggest research stations in Antarctica – McMurdo, or “Mac-Town” and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station – are indeed both American, run by the NSF, so maybe it’s understandable, but I did feel that the presence of and research carried out by other countries and other organisations was ignored somewhat. Robinson does, though, make a point of showing the vast range of nationalities working on or visiting the continent. He took part in the US Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writers Program, so he did draw on real experience.

He also, perhaps surprisingly for science fiction, shows some of the negative sides of “doing science” – the resentment and antagonism from the unseen support crew, the tendency to have such single-minded focus that the rest of the world doesn’t get noticed, the painfully slow process of peer review and publication. However, the individual scientists that we meet are great people, doing great work.

Somehow this novel is both pessimistic and hopeful, which is artful indeed. And it has made me want to re-read the Science in the Capital series. So much for making a dent in the TBR.

First published in Great Britain in 1997 by HarperCollins.

When men were men

Escape from the Antarctic
by Ernest Shackleton

I bow down in awe to this man. Seriously. Ernest Shackleton was a proper, honest-to-goodness hero, and a pretty good writer to boot.

This is a Penguin Great Journeys excerpt from Shackleton’s book South: The “Endurance” Expedition, which of course I now want to read in full, but I think Penguin’s editors did a good job choosing the key section of the story. As the brief introduction explains, the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition set out in 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton. His ship, the Endurance was crushed by ice and the crew found themselves marooned on Elephant Island in winter. With no means of contacting the outside world, Shackleton decided that the only solution was to adapt a 20-foot sailing boat as best they could and, with just six men (including himself) cross the 800 miles of stormy, icy ocean to the island of South Georgia, where there was a Norwegian whaling station.

Shackleton’s tone is matter-of-fact but the facts are incredible. Throughout hardship after hardship he is spurred by the knowledge that the lives of the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island depend entirely on his voyage succeeding. He is practical about the condition of each man but his style of leadership won me over from the start. On Elephant Island the expedition cook is taken ill so Shackleton selects one of the men particularly suffering from depression and despair at the state they are in to take the cook’s place, knowing that having plenty to do and a schedule to follow will help the man keep going.

This is not a journal or log-style account but a book written later expanding on notes taken during the voyage, so there is some room for prose that really gets to the heart what it felt like to be on that journey:

“We were a tiny speck in the vast vista of the sea – the ocean that is open to all and merciful to none, that threatens even when it seems to yield, and that is pitiless always to weakness. For a moment the consciousness of the forces arrayed against us would be almost overwhelming. Then hope and confidence would rise again as our boat rose to a wave…”

But it’s not the occasional foray into descriptive prose so much as the bare facts that make this book outstanding. Everyone should read it, and then fret about how totally useless they are by comparison.

South: The “Endurance” Expedition first published 1919.
This extract published in Penguin Books in 2007.