Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 1998, 511 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10063-7

Kim Stanley Robinson has done it again.

If you loved the Mars trilogy, you will like Antarctica. If you thought Robinson paid too much attention to detail in his trilogy, you will feel the same way with Antarctica. If you liked the political theory in all Mars books, there more of it in Antarctica. If you like his newly-matured stylistic techniques exhibited in the martian trilogy, rest assured that he’s doing much of the same thing here. In short, Antarctica is one of the most obvious follow-up possible to the Mars trilogy. Fans as well as non-fans will find what they expect here.

Antarctica is a cold, vast, lonely place. One of this planet’s last frontiers (it was only explored at the beginning of this century), it remains, even today, quite mysterious. Far from being a vast plain of eternal ice, Antarctica proves itself a varied, fascinating continent.

In his latest novel, Kim Stanley Robinson tells us about the Antarctica. It’s a book best compared to lengthy travelogues written by explorers: Not much of a plot, but a wealth of details.

In 1995, Robinson went to Antarctica courtesy of the National Science Foundation, as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writer’s Programs. It obviously shows. Whatever tax dollars were spent in order for Mr. Robinson to spend some time down under, they were well-invested. The resulting book is a solid testimony of the beauty of the continent.

Even though it’s marketed under the mainstream Bantam logo (not the Bantam Spectra SF imprint), Antarctica is straight science-fiction. Not only because it takes place sometime in the early twenty-first century but mostly because it espouses and deals with the themes dearest to SF: the nature of scientific change, the effect of technology on humans and the environment. It’s as if Robinson applies the talent he has sharpened in SF to a problem that’s almost contemporary. The result is awe-inspiring.

Antarctica contains some technological gadgets, some sociological innovations but many digressions about the history of Antarctica and the human presence on this decidedly difficult continent. Robinson effectively creates and sustain a mystique about Antarctica through historical digressions and carefully selected vignettes. We’re not there, but we get the sights without the frostbite.

Characters are well-handled. Although the usual “visitor” character is kept suitably under-developed (a must if he is to be the reader’s fictional surrogate), the two other main protagonist are well-sketched, and elicit our sympathy. The assortment of secondary characters is also developed with great care. There are no outright villains, Antarctica being formidable enough as opponent.

The fiction content of the novel is less impressive. The story doesn’t revv up until half the book has passed, and then mostly resolves itself in barely more than 150 pages, leaving characters around for almost another hundred pages. This is where fans and non-fans of Robinson will diverge opinions: Fans simply don’t care because they like what they’re reading anyway while non fans won’t care because, effectively, they don’t care. Caveat lector, or so to speak.

Antarctica is a good follow-up to the Mars trilogy. Of exceptionally worthy docu-fictive value, it will please those who like this kind of stuff. Robinson really makes Antarctica come alive in his novel. Well-written if thin plot-wise, it’s nevertheless one dense, satisfying read. Try not to miss it.

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