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.

Categories aren’t always helpful

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations
a novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

In preparation for tomorrow’s jaunt to BristolCon, I have been reading some sci-fi short stories this week. Tim recommended this one, which has stuck with him for years (though it may not quite count as sci-fi). You can read it online here.

It’s the story of Frank Churchill (no idea if the Austen reference is deliberate), a writer of history books who is living in New York and taking “light therapy” in an attempt to alleviate his depression. It doesn’t seem to be working so he reluctantly accepts an offer to travel to London to write a complete history of the 20th century, figuring that the UK’s longer hours of daylight in summer will save him having to attend therapy.

The bulk of the story is about his research, with daily trips to the reading room at the British Museum. His findings form part of the story, a sorry litany of war after war after war. Obviously that’s a limited view of the century but it’s certainly believable that in future it’s all that will be remembered.

As with my previous experience of Robinson (or “Stan”, as I believe his friends know him), it’s all about the main character. In the background lurks a vague sense of apocalypse, of things unexplained, but at the forefront is an everyday, relatable human being. Frank is deftly created, a few words rustling up a lifetime of backstory. Every location is described with what feels like insider knowledge, without it becoming a list of buildings and street names (believe me, it happens). I often find that a short story isn’t long enough for me to really care about the outcome but I definitely cared about Frank.

I greatly enjoyed this story and it reminded me that I really should go back and finish Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991. Reprinted in Remaking History and other stories (Orb, 1994).