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Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam, 1998, 511 pp.

Robinson knows how to capture the spirit of a place. Or at least, convey the impression that he has captured the spirit of place. After all, no one has been to Mars, and Robinson's Red Mars and its sequels were extremely convincing. Similarly, almost none of the readers of Antarctica will have been to that continent to judge Robinson's version -- yet I almost have the feeling that I have been there. Unfortunately, this attention to detail leads to a somewhat bloated writing style, an accusation that makes for another parallel with the Mars series. To my mind, Robinson is a better writer when he keeps his books lean and focused on character (see any of the Three Californias series, The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, or Pacific Edge). Antarctica is a wonderful book in many ways: excellent characterization, strong underlying ideas, and a sharp sense of how ideologies collide. I also found it interesting to ponder how Robinson's own ideas interact with the fact that I am holding a physical book in my hands (more on that in a minute). But I often found my eyes glazing over at the level of detail, and although I never skimmed, I was tempted to do so on a number of occasions.

The story weaves together many elements. The man known as X (I'll leave the explanation of his name to the book) is a GFA, or General Field Assistant, at McMurdo Station. He is not terribly pleased with his job, and takes a job with an oil exploration team. Valerie Kenning is a trek guide, taking various tourists on treks that re-create the original routes of the famous explorers like Scott and Amundsen. Val and X share a troubled history, where Val dumped X rather unceremoniously. Wade Norton is a trusted aide of an American Senator, and he is on a fact-finding mission. The Antarctic Treaty is up for renewal, and his boss wants the full scoop on the competing interests on the frozen continent. These three characters meet near the beginning of the novel, separate for a while as their jobs take them in different directions, and then are thrown together by some radical sabotage (or ecotage as the perpetrators like to call it). Robinson maneuvers all of the factions together for a confrontation at the end.

I have mentioned the three main characters already. The bulk of the book is written from the viewpoint of one of these three, and we get to know X, Val, and Wade quite familiarly. I especially liked the way that each person has their own, sometimes radically different, angle on the events. Especially with regards to relationships and attraction. Robinson uses these three people effectively, but he also gives us an insight into the more minor characters. Ta Shun is broadcasting everything to his fanatic home audience in China, and we get the "transcripts" of his voice-overs. A nice device to balance the Eurocentrism of some of the other characters.

I am writing this review on the first day of spring, after going for a walk in the gorgeous sunny afternoon. Earlier this morning, I was sitting inside as I finished reading this book. And while Robinson himself went to Antarctica to research Antarctica, he no doubt wrote the bulk of it while inside, sitting at a computer. So what to make of a passage like the following? Val is feeling bitter about the people on her trek:

Even these so-called outdoorspeople were still very little more than brains in bottles -- weekend warriors at best, exercising nothing but their fingertips in their work hours, the rest of their bodies turning as soft as couch cushions. Watching computer screens, sitting in cars, watching TV, it was all the same thing -- watching. Big-eyed brains in bottles. (324).

When I make this comparison, I am in no way trying to attack Robinson. And keep in mind that Val is an expert mountaineer, who doesn't slow down once in a hundred kilometer trek across some of the toughest conditions in Antarctica -- most of us should be happy to balance our lifestyle between the sedentary and the active. But this obvious paradox (between the sedentariness represented in the production and consumption of this book and the activeness of the subject matter) points to a more subtle one.

A nameless character (not to be confused with X) becomes part of the ecotage movement. On our first encounter with this saboteur (or ecoteur) character, this is what he has to say: "He saw more clearly every day that the big slogan-ideas like democracy, free markets, technological advancement, scientific objectivity, and progress in history, were all myths on the same level as the feudal divine right of kings: self-serving alibis that a minority of rich powerful people were using to control the world" (37). So many categories are covered in that sentence that everyone will have to concede at least part of the proposition. Robinson does not condone sabotage or ecotage in any way, but the rationale for the ecotage has an element of truth in it. The climax of Antarctica demonstrates the triumph of a sane middle ground -- between the rampages of capitalism (or any of the other slogan-ideas in the sentence I quoted) and the extreme reaction of terrorism or sabotage. Interestingly, the ecoteur character would likely classify large publishing conglomerates as firmly gripped by the madness of capitalism. In that context, Robinson has slyly used the system to transmit ideas that advocate the end of the system. However, the same idea of balance applies here as with the sedentary/active debate. While I may not be ready for an uninterrupted 48 hour trek across Antarctica any time soon, the book has indeed motivated me to get off my butt more often... despite the necessarily passive experience of reading the book. Similarly, Robinson uses the book's internal debate about capitalism and co-opification (the term most of the characters use) to pass along some interesting ideas. Does the number of copies sold, or the manner in which they are published and sold (respectively, Bantam, and in many cases, chain superstores) alter the ideas of the book? Perhaps, but it's not a question I feel qualified to answer. A fascinating debate, however, and one inevitably raised by the ideas themselves. Antarctica is a stronger book for venturing into such enigmatic domains.

Last modified: March 23, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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