Thursday, April 28, 2011

Antarctic Fiction

Although some of us here at the Arctic Book Review take a dim view of the place we like to call "the other pole," there's no denying that this region of the earth, nearly as much as the North, has had a deep and abiding attraction to writers of fiction. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which combines elements of exploration narrative, memoir, and fantasy so effectively that Poe's British publisher initially believed it to be a factual account. Pym ends on a strange, ambiguous note, in a region where the water runs white and a mysterious pale figure appears but does not speak. The apparent lack of resolution is "explained" in an editorial note by Poe, who says that "Pym" unhappily died before being able to complete his narrative, which of course has not prevented others from taking up where Poe left off. H.P. Lovecraft, in his At the Mountains of Madness (1936) imagines an archaeological expedition launched in part to investigate strange inscriptions modelled on (and at one point quoting) those in Pym; after ascending an Antarctic mountain range taller than the Himalayas, the scientists discover a weird, lush tropical world in which "elder things" -- a variety of species with impossible evolutionary features -- lie in wait. Making a film of Lovecraft's novel has been a longtime dream of director Guillermo del Toro, but at present the project appears to be dead in the (icy) water.

The idea that the poles hide secret tropics is far older than Lovecraft; the idea goes back at least to 1888, when an Antarctic jungle featured in American writer James De Mille's Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder; Jules Verne's Adventures of Captain Hatteras gave the North a tropic as well, complete with an active volcano in its center. But in recent years, these sorts of geographical fancies have given way to more political ones, to tales which project the issues and anxieties of the present onto the one last continent which is not the territory of any nation (albeit it has its zones of influence).

The earliest of these, and one of the best, is John Calvin Batcheolor's 1983 opus, The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica. Batchelor, who has since quit writing novels and become a radio talk show host, opens his tale with a sentence worthy of Melville: "I am Grim Fiddle." In other hands, such a phrase might be the start of a luridly overwritten melodrama, but Batchelor weaves a weird yet entirely compelling narrative involving a hippie commune in Stockholm, a Swedish civil war (!), and a vast wave of refugees on boats who create their own uneasy nations on an Antarctic coast newly rendered habitable by global warming. Grim Fiddle becomes, in course, the last great hope against an opposing tide of "New Benthamites" (named after Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism), as well as a sort of accidental Moses to the fractious tribes who find themselves fighting over limited resources at the bottom of this brave new world.

From the viewpoint of today's even more contentious world, Batchelor's neo-Nordic political meditation may seem almost nostalgic; nowadays, the people who claim everything is political are less often progressives who believe in a voyage toward a better tomorrow, but fear-mongers who are looking for things, and people, to throw overboard. Which brings us to our second two novels, both published this year. Mat Johnson, in his Pym, has made the most direct evocation of Poe since Lovecraft, but it's as sociopolitical fodder for wry fancies, not a realistic voyager's tale, while J. Zornado, taking the pulse of today and projecting it 39 years into the future, discovers in the Antarctic wastes an almost-alien planet -- "Little Earth" -- on which will be fought battles between the "gods" of old (avatars, apparently, of old science gone mad) and the scattered tribes of wanderers who populate their domain.

Pym announces itself from the very start as a sharp satire: Chris Jaynes, an African-American professor obsessed with Poe's Pym is denied tenure at an elite private college, his collection of books removed from his office and dumped out in the rain on his front porch. Along with his Little-Debbie-munching Sancho Panza, Garth Frierson, he and a rag-tag band of characters displaced from the blogosphere embark on a collective Quixotic quest, searching the deepest South for the 'heart of whiteness' predicted to be found there by Toni Morrison. They discover a mysterious race all right -- what the narrator dubs "snow honkies" -- but there's very little mystery in the elaborate business that brings them there. There are a few hilarious moments, but for this reader, it's such a self-conscious exercise in over-the-top intellectual parody that all the fizz goes out of the narrative long before journey's end. If what fiction is for is to admire the author's cleverness, let this novel win a prize -- if not, then perhaps there's some other better reason to undertake a journey.

Which brings us to 2050. There is a danger in constant sly irony, and yet another danger in too much seriousness; either can be fatal. J. Zornado begins in the middle register, part Frank Herbert and part Sam Beckett, as, Vladimir-like in his dim futility, Vilb Solenthay lurches back and forth across a desert landscape, carrying water in what we belatedly, horribly, realize are human "skins." In some ways, 2050 harks back to Batchelor's book, painting a dire and dessicated landscape as vast as that of Earthsea or Middle Earth – to the latter of which, indeed, its “Little Earth” is indebted. Its reluctant hero may remind some of Bilbo, though instead of a wise wizard he has only the counsel of a young girl whose sanity and motives are questionable; his journey, like Bilbo’s, involves the crossing of a mountain pass and a trail through a vast and unusually dense forest. Yet the “gods” we meet here are of quite a different sort; unlike Tolkien’s warring forces of good and evil, these gods are asymmetrical and ambiguous, with uncertain and variable powers, motives, and histories. This first volume has the task of introducing us to them.

Zornado does a remarkable job of plunging us headfirst into a richly-imagined world. Of course, we recognize it as Antarctica – but clearly something has happened; there is neither water nor ice, and snow exists only in Vilb’s half-remembered dream- visions; illumination comes from the "arclight" -- an Aurora Australis of sorts, not natural but generated by some strange power source deep beneath the ground, and it's fading. At the same time, in this newly-reissued volume, the first of a trilogy to be brought forth by Iron Diesel Press, we sense a far longer journey, not merely to the present abode of these "gods," but an uncanny recursus which promises to take us at once back to our own past, and forward to a perilous future. The latter part of the first volume brings the reader around via a tightening spiral of past and present that draws ever nearer the centers of power; here we get our first indications that the "gods" of the novel are the embodied forms of an elite group of scientists in whose hands the continent of Antarctica was first transformed. We also see the long shadow of events from before the end of the world, getting glimpses of the ambitions and conflicts between these scientists, as well as of a figure known as Leventhal who, it appears, was the Oppenheimer of them all.

I reviewed the original edition of 2050 at length when it came out a few years ago -- but this is in essence a new book entirely, framed by a new preface, and shaped and shaded throughout by the gravity of the two volumes to come. It's as strong a start to a significant act of world-building as any I know in the realms of fantasy or science fiction; its readers' only frustration will be the wait, but it will not be long: the second volume is to be published just a year from now.