By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam; 508 pages; $24.95
Set in the opening years of the next century, "Antarctica" presents a tour of a terrestrial continent that is nearly as alien and inhospitable as our nearest neighbor in the solar system. Combining the extrapolative techniques of science fiction with the reportorial style of a popular history, Robinson creates a fascinating portrait of a harsh environment that at first seems to offer little more in the way of dramatic interest than rocks, ice and penguins.
The action in "Antarctica" revolves around three primary characters. For a General Field Assistant known only as X, his Antarctic sojourn has devolved into a lonely exile filled with meaningless scut work and endless tasks for the scientists living there. His former lover, adventure trek guide Valerie Kenning , relishes the sensation of living on the edge that the continent continuously provides, but resents the clients who insist on taking unreasonable risks. And Wade Norton, an aide for California Senator Phil Davis, arrives at McMurdo Station to investigate reports of missing equipment and possible sabotage.
The pending non-renewal of the Antarctic Treaty means that the continent's natural resources might soon be up for grabs. With the rest of the world battling the ravages of global warming, many groups fear an ecological disaster in Antarctica. As X, Val and Wade discover, some individuals are willing to use extreme, and potentially deadly, means of promoting their political agendas.
The plot of "Antarctica" moves at a stately, some might even say even glacial, pace. Robinson takes his time in setting the scene and introducing the characters. Sometimes he indulges in lessons in geology, meteorology and politics well past the point of the average reader's interest.
Nevertheless, Robinson finds clever ways of conveying the natural majesty and human history of the continent. Especially compelling are the chapters told from the perspective of a Chinese video artist named Ta Shu, who recounts for his audience back home the tales of Scott and Amundsen, the first men to attempt to reach the South Pole.
Robinson excels in describing what makes Antarctica so unique and mysterious. At one point of her expedition, Val muses, "And it was easy to take the icescapes down here for granted anyway, because they were so ubiquitous, and so spectacular everywhere, but in a fractal way, self-similar at all scales, so that one lost perspective. It was like becoming an ant and hiking through the ice tray in your refrigerator; there are scores of beautiful ice formations in every refrigerator, but how many people notice? You had to be a connoisseur of ice." Robinson proves himself just such a connoisseur.
After a band of "ecoteurs" disrupt the carefully maintained survival systems by blowing up research stations and jamming communications satellites, the second half of the novel amply rewards the reader's patience. Cut off from their supplies and unable to communicate with the outside world, Val, Wade and X struggle to survive in an environment where a single misstep can mean disaster.
That's when all of Robinson's careful scene-setting pays off. In its second half, "Antarctica" becomes a suspenseful adventure, lyrically described and morally complex. By the time X, Val and Wade achieve their individual goals, Robinson has made the reader care about not only their fates, and about the fate of an entire continent.
(c) 1998 by Michael Berry