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Like the continent, 'Antarctica' is not for the faint hearted

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Doubleday Dell, $24.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: Thursday, July 02, 1998 4:30:45 PM EDT

(CNN) -- Call them "extremes junkies." They are the people addicted to testing the limits. They are most alive when they are the highest, or the deepest, or the farthest, or the fastest. They spend their lives in intervals between pushing themselves to the edge of existence. Some of them manage to turn their addiction into a way of life. They find a place where the very act of living tests their souls to the extreme. The place is Antarctica.

Novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of the acclaimed "Mars Trilogy", which won him the top honors in science fiction community. "Red Mars" netted him the Nebula award, while both "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars" garnered him Hugo awards. After spending so much time investigating the Martian landscape, Robinson has turned his attention to a much closer, but equally alien one. In 1995, he visited the South Pole under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. "Antarctica" reflects the profound impact the last unspoiled continent had on him.

It is a novel of the near future, set in the early 21st century. The other continents are sagging under the weight of humanity. Ten billion people are stretching the planet's limited resources to the breaking point. One of the first things to unravel is the international treaty that sets Antarctica aside as a protected wilderness and open-air laboratory for science. It is no longer unpopulated. A small number of people live there more or less permanently, and a somewhat larger number work there on a seasonal basis.

Antarctica has become a fashionable tourist destination for "extremes junkies." There's a brisk business in "adventure tours," which recreate the early explorations of the continent. Its natural resources, large reserves of natural gas and oil, are coveted by the transnational energy companies, as well as by resource-poor nations of the Southern Hemisphere. It has also become ground zero in a hotly debated scientific controversy, and teams of paleontologists and geomorphologists are lining up to get a piece of the action.

Robinson tells his story through the eyes of people with an abiding interest in what happens to Antarctica. There's Wade, the high-powered aide to a globe-trotting senator, who's sent south to look into a series of odd occurrences. And there's the aptly-named Val, a latter day Valkyrie -- tall, strong, tough, smart, and beautiful, a tour guide who leads treks across the ice. Ta Shu, a Chinese poet, joins one of Val's tour groups to make a virtual documentary, and serves as a sort of Greek chorus. Then there's the huge hulk of a man who knows a little bit about an awful lot of things, but very little about himself. He is called, simply, X.

Through them we learn a fundamental fact about life at the bottom of the world. It's cold. Really, really cold. Everyone is cold. Everything is cold. Every moment in the cold is spent thinking of getting out of it, and every moment out of it is spent dreading going back into it. It's that cold.

A novel about such a frigid place might seem attractive on a blistering hot summer afternoon. The book, like the land, requires a major commitment. For one thing, it wanders over a large part of the polar landscape. For another, it takes more than 500 pages to do it. It's not the sort of novel that can be absorbed like sunlight while lounging on the beach. But if you're shipwrecked on a desert island, this may be the book for you.

Robinson creates a complex social structure in the main settlement, McMurdo Station. The Antarctica Treaty requires that virtually everyone who sets foot on the place be an environmentalist in (what else) the extreme. A bureaucracy has taken root that tries to balance the economic, ecological and administrative needs of the continent. It is understaffed and underfunded. So when things begin to disappear mysteriously, a power generator here, a trailer full of cargo there, the bureaucrats try to find out what's going on, and at the same time prevent anyone else from finding out what's going on.

These little mysteries, and a campaign of non-violent but highly destructive eco-terrorism, become a thin thread from which Robinson hangs what is essentially a love letter to the wildest place on Earth. "First you fall in love with Antarctica," he writes, "and then it breaks your heart."

People who live in Antarctica do nothing in small ways. Wade attends a dance at the South Pole itself. The music is provided by a fair-to-middling garage band, "The Polecats." But it is the lead guitarist who commands Wade's attention. Song by song, he demonstrates a virtuosity that eclipses the rest of the band. He finally cuts loose on a Jimi Hendrix tune and escapes "to that distant place of pain and suffering that was the world, all those nights playing unheard in those bars while he played about the ice, his blues and the South Pole Blues become one and the same, the blues of someone who had to come back down to the ice for the nth time after swearing he would never come again, drawn down here away from the bars and bands and women and friends, seduced away again by the ice and then struck down in its cold boredom. First you fall in love with Antarctica."

To those who live on the ice, everything else is "the world." They go to Antarctica to escape the mundane. It's where they come alive. Val's tour group suffers an accident that leaves them without food or shelter on top of a glacier. She must lead them to safety, a hundred kilometers across the polar cap. As they struggle to keep up, her thoughts are those of a person addicted to extremes. "Compared to life in the world, it took no courage at all to walk across the polar cap; it was simple, it was safe, it was exhilarating. The world was stuffed with things harder than walking in Antarctica, and compared to those kinds of things, walking for your life across the polar ice cap was nothing. It was fun. It could kill you and it would still be fun, it would be fun death."

It is perhaps inevitable that a novel about the South Pole include some polemics. There are long passages about the interrelation of the world's various ecologies. There are tracts about economic self-determination and the dead end of what Robinson calls Gotterdammerung capitalism. There are pleas to the spiritual side of human nature for a wholesale renewal of the human condition.

There are also tributes and diatribes about the early explorers. Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton, their triumphs and tragedies. Mostly, though, Robinson focuses on the stark, awful beauty of the landscape. "You see," he tells us, "the air is so clean. Mountains so distant, yet still focused and detailed; as if your eye had become telescopic. Water lying there glossy and compact, like shot silk in the sun. Never have you seen such clarity before, where the spiritual landscape stuffs the visible landscape until it bursts with luminous presence. Seeing things this clearly makes you wonder what the rest of the world would look like in such clean air."

If you choose to take up the challenge that is "Antarctica," be prepared for some heavy sledding. You will learn much more than you wanted to about surviving the harsh climate, about the technology that makes such survival possible, and the people who use that technology to feed their addiction to extremes. Antarctica may be like no place you've ever been. That may be reason enough to make the journey.

L.D. Meagher is a news editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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