The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica
On the copyright page of The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, John Calvin Batchelor acknowledges his debt to various editions of several Scandinavian sagas; in particular, there are parallels between the novel’s protagonist, Grim Fiddle, and a certain saga hero, Skallagrim Strider. Batchelor’s novel, however, is more than a retelling of the saga of Skallagrim Strider: It deals with questions which the authors of sagas did not ask, such as the origin of myth, the usefulness of ideas, and the causes of alienation. Batchelor also explores the meaning of guilt, a rare theme in sagas or in heroic literature, generally. Finally, despite its title, Batchelor’s novel is more about degeneration than about origins.
Characters in The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica think and act in ways not strange to twentieth century readers, but their adventures are similar to those of heroes in Scandinavian sagas. Batchelor’s exiles turn deprivation into opportunity, becoming leaders or rulers of lands in which they arrive by chance. Principalities rise and fall, largely because of the qualities of individuals, but no shift to an earlier—and more heroic—age is necessary. The action takes place in the immediate future—a modern adventure story made more exciting by implications involving entire countries.
To make plausible this kind of adventure story in the immediate future, Batchelor posits a decline of twentieth century institutions and a climatic catastrophe affecting a large part of the earth. Moreover, the novel’s protagonist, for a peculiarly twentieth century reason, has an education similar to that of Skallagrim Strider and occasionally retreats into a way of thinking in which certain kinds of magic are possible.
In Batchelor’s novel, the decline of twentieth century pluralistic states and other institutions creates a class of seaborne exiles. These exiles have adventures similar to those in Scandinavian sagas. The novel includes a detailed account of the replacement of Sweden’s tolerant social democracy by a nationalistic, ostensibly Christian, authoritarian regime that consumes its own leaders. In flimsy boats named Angel of Death and Black Crane, Grim and others of foreign or suspect origin flee from Sweden in 1995. Denied landing rights by many countries, the exiles finish their journey in the desolate South Atlantic. Events outside Sweden are not discussed in detail, but it is obvious that nationalistic fervor is increasing in most countries and that land grabs are becoming commonplace.
Separated from the rest of his group, Grim briefly participates in international war—an unsuccessful defense of British rule in the Falkland Islands. He then settles in neighboring South Georgia, which is officially British but has effectively become autonomous. In six years, Grim rises from shepherd to president of the Assembly, then he is exiled again. Later, he establishes his own kingdom centered on another South Atlantic island, Anvers Island....
(The entire section is 1247 words.)