Kim Stanley Robinson is one of America’s premier science- fiction novelists. His trilogy on the establishment of human habitation on the planet Mars and its successful colonization won the genre’s highest accolades. Red Mars received the Nebula Award and Green Mars and Blue Mars were each awarded the Hugo as best novel of the year. Robinson’s science fiction forte is in hard science rather than fantasy. His Mars trilogy as well as Antarctica are all set in the near future, and the scientific theories and technologies he uses are well within the parameters of what is at least highly probable. This gives to all of his recent novels a verisimilitude that allows the reader to enter into his stories and their plots without an unrealistic or excessive suspension of belief. Robinson does not write fantasy.
Antarctica is not dissimilar to his Mars saga, except that the story is located on earth rather than in outer space. However, the earth’s southernmost hemisphere is environmentally closer to that of Mars than many locales on the home planet. Robinson refers to it as the “Ice Planet.” Temperatures are generally bitterly cold, winds frequently exceed those in more moderate locations, and human life is not native, arriving only something more than a century ago with the first polar explorers. The physical and psychological challenges of Antarctica are nearly as formidable as those the human species will meet if and when it first journeys to Mars. Nevertheless, by the twenty-first century Antarctica has become a locus of increasing activity for its uniqueness, for the challenges it presents to the explorer and adventurer, for the possibilities for scientific research, even for economic development. Individuals, governments, and private organizations have been drawn to its rugged landscape. In his work Robinson explores the diversity, challenges, and opportunities presented by Antarctica.
A major theme of Antarctica is broadly differentiating among those who are drawn to the Ice Planet for intellectual and scientific reasons, for aesthetic or emotional reasons, and for economic, political, or even military reasons. Should the continent be preserved essentially as it is, with minimal impact and intrusion, or is it someplace to be used—and possibly used up—like so much of the rest of the earth? Robinson’s various characters carry on this debate over the future of Antarctica throughout the novel.
X, or Extra Large, is a 6-foot, 10-inch young American college graduate who came south searching for meaning and adventure but who has become something of a low-level gopher in the company which has the contract to administer McMurdo Station. Valerie Kenning, X’s former girlfriend, is a guide for the new breed of ecotourist who wants to experience the ultimate challenge, but under professional leadership. Wade Norton, the chief adviser to a liberal California senator whose penchant is for foreign travel and who frequently calls Norton from different parts of the globe, is in Antarctica in order to assess the long-pending renewal of the Antarctic Treaty System. One of Val’s tourists is Ta Shu, a Chinese geomancer and practitioner of feng shui, who broadcasts his commentaries back to his homeland via a video camera and who is the only character who speaks in the first person. Mai Lis is a “feral” who has dropped out in Antarctica and heads a commune of like-minded individuals. There are scientists, biologists, and geologists; some are involved in the ongoing quest for scientific breakthroughs, such as the geologist Geoffrey Michelson and his companions, while others are there in order to assess the resources for possible use. Representing radical political environmentalists, or ecoterrorists, is Mr. Smith. The individual characters are frequently archetypal rather than complex individuals, and each plays a supporting or subordinate role to the major character, which is Antarctica itself.
There are several other human characters who play a role in Antarctica, almost like the chorus in a Greek drama. These characters are not fictional but historical and long dead. The polar explorers of the early twentieth century are a presence throughout the novel, particularly Robert Falcon Scott, who died in seeking the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton, who survived one of the most harrowing of all Antarctic journeys, and the conqueror of the pole, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Robinson’s fictional characters discuss these almost mythic figures from the past, sometimes even following the same trails or paths they first blazed decades before. At other times Robinson inserts a short chapter or section about the early explorers, frequently narrated by Ta Shu, who states on one...
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