Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media

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When the last wilderness on Earth is threatened, what do we do? Antarctica follows some of the continent’s inhabitants in a future that feels like today: Val, an experienced mountaineer who guides tourist following in polar explorers’ footsteps; X, a general field assistant doing general field assistance; and Wade, aide to a US Senator looking into some mysterious disappearances near the South Pole. Their lives in the icy cold seem tough enough as is, until suddenly disaster strikes…

Listened to the audiobook with Adam Verner – good narrator for a complex book; he did take an hour of getting used to.

Antarctica is one of these interesting near-future science fiction works that actually get overtaken by the near future they’re describing. Written in 1997, it feels much like it took place a couple of years ago, with ‘wrist phones’ having inexplicably replaced smartphones or smartwatches, and working remotely being called ‘telecommuting’.

Antarctica may be outdated in some ways – some of its scientific debates have, as I understand it, mostly been resolved – but it doesn’t read like an outdated work. Rather, it reads like a turn-of-the-millennium optimist’s version of the 2020s. Antarctica feels like a here and now where the problems aren’t necessarily solved, but the political cynicism of populism hasn’t taken hold and instead there is room for science and optimism instead. Looking back, Antarctica almost feels a little naïve at times. Still, reading Antarctica, I constantly felt like I would rather live in that version of our world.

So, thematically, the novel hasn’t aged a day. Antarctica is about climate change and about capitalism threatening the last real wildernis on Earth. It is about what we can do to stop it. That is even more pertinent now than it was in 1997.

But it is also about why humans go to the extremes that they do to live in the most inhospitable region on Earth. About the quest for prestige of the early explorers, the quest for knowledge of modern scientists, and about the quest for the edge of the human experience sought by today’s tourists who literally follow in the footsteps of the great explorers in an attempt to claim a piece of whatever it was that made those men great.

Mixed with all that are the small troubles of the daily lives of the guides and maintenance workers and scientist that live on Antarctica every day to make it all possible for everyone else. And as always, Kim Stanley Robinson writes these characters as well as he does the larger political picture.

Antarctica does not start off with a big bang, but Robinson rather builds the pressure slowly as the book progresses. Just as we feel we are starting to understand each character, something goes wrong. And as the troubles mount, life in Antarctica feels more and more dangerous.

The pace increases throughout the book, only held down by sections discussing research into Antarctic geology that might not be for everyone (and which reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s style). But if you’re confident you can get through those, I can promise you Antarctica, despite its literary style, will not let up.

I finished the 20-hour audiobook in less than a week – perhaps that says something about my listening habits, but it definitely says something about how I kept wanting to dive back into this fascinating book.

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