Kim Stanley Robinson,
Antarctica
(Bantam, 1998)

Antarctica is almost another planet, at the farthest end of this one. Earth's biosphere ends at its borders, and the interior is empty of life, except for the occasional human station and a rare overflying skua (a type of gull).

Antarctica, the novel, is technically science fiction, although it takes place in a future not that far away and not that different from the present. The Antarctic Treaty (which has largely protected this continent from exploitation) is up for renewal; countries which had not been party to it want their interests addressed; and the ways in which research there is handled are under debate. These external pressures affect the inhabitants of Antarctica, largely seasonal workers, in various ways -- but themselves take place offstage. This novel is almost entirely set on the continent itself, among the people who love it.

The descriptions of the land are breathtaking. Antarctica is the novel's main character, and Robinson describes its beauty in words that brought vivid images to my mind, inspired a flurry of 3D landscape modelling (which has thus far largely failed to live up the to word-pictures), and caused me to check out every book on Antarctica in our local library! Meanwhile, as the human characters travel around, one learns much abut the history and geography of the continent ... and the dangers to which global politics and actions make it vulnerable.

While the human characters are mostly united in their love of the place, this does not mean they agree on other issues, political and personal. How they handle these differences, how they rank different values, how they negotiate personal differences and learn from all these, is another primary theme. In the end, agreements are reached -- but these agreements are living balances between different people and perspectives, and require ongoing involvement and goodwill. This is perhaps utopian, but one wonders why we dismiss such a prospect thus.

Vivid characters abound. X starts the novel as a flunky, a support person for the base at McMurdo (the largest Antarctic base, and mostly American), and a rather discontented and unformed person. By the end he has grown into someone who makes choices through a series of smaller incidents and choices, not via epiphany. And he is, perhaps, the least vivid character. There's Val, an experienced mountaineer and guide, who wrestles with her own desires, goals and demons, while behaving well and living with her failures; Ta Shu, a Chinese geomancer and former poet, returning to Antarctica and describing his journeys there in a sort of multi-media travel diary for a world-wide audience (all his point of view is from this presentation); and Wade, the assistant to a U.S. senator who has sent him there to learn what's going on in order to get the U.S. to renew its adherence to the Treaty and to try to introduce more humane values generally to American politics. These are only the main viewpoint characters; others are drawn with a similar vividness.

I love this book. I've read it twice now, and while writing this review had to resist another rereading! Robinson has inspired a fascination with Antarctica that will keep me busy reading, admiring photographs, and landscape modelling for months to come. I also appreciate reading a novel where the main characters are people of good will, who try to behave with understanding and compassion; many novels -- particularly in science fiction -- seem to accept basic primate group dynamics as both a given and the best that one can expect, like Ben Bova's otherwise-excellent Return to Mars. In Antarctica the characters are concerned about how things work and fit together, and how individuals fit into the whole, and I find this far more interesting then a vying for who's on top.

Most people who like Ursula Le Guin seem to like Robinson. I've read most of his work now, and think Antarctica is his strongest to date. I've also read quite a lot of literature about Antarctica at this point, and Robinson's evocation of the continent is the best I've encountered. Don't be put off by the science fiction label; this novel is driven by characters and the land, not by technology. A marvelous book!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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