In black and white

Having dipped into Kim Stanley Robinson’s work at intervals during his career (whether retrospectively as here, or contemporaneously), I’m starting to get a handle on his M.O. The fact that he tends to do the same sort of thing doesn’t indicate that his books are repetitive however, although they are very recognisably the same writer tackling different settings or topics. Sometimes those settings are so removed from our own world that his consistent approach is somewhat obscured, as with the extremely advanced technologies postulated in The Memory of Whiteness or Galileo’s Dream, but when his speculative territory is within the real world’s technical or scientific horizons you can get a sense of him worrying away at a set of recurrent themes. Common to his books are a deep and broad approach to research; a willingness to credit the reader with both an interest in the technical details of the topic in hand, and the intelligence to understand them; a focus on systems, networks, social structures and ecologies; an insistence on the interconnectedness of such systems, including a dogged commitment to the centrality of social justice to ecological sustainability; and a steadfast resistance to the clichés of adventure fiction, keeping scientists, explorers, administrators, technicians and artists, along with their work, at the centre of his narratives.

Given these consistent features of much of Robinson’s writing, it would be easy for me to repeat myself a lot when writing responses to his books—and given that I am currently engaged in an effort to read everything he’s published, I’ll tend towards the alternative of writing shorter pieces about them! Antarctica, published in 1997, is one of those ‘big idea’ novels, which takes a central concept as both a physical reality and as a unifying theme or symbol. There is a certain sense of ambition and confidence that goes with offering your readership such a title, as though Robinson were quite sure that he was publishing the definitive fictional treatment of that continent. I couldn’t comment on that, based either on my knowledge of Antarctica, or of books about it, but I can see that he set out to give our most southerly continent the same kind of treatment that he gave to the planet Mars in his successful trilogy on that planet’s colonisation.

Many of the same techniques are in use here, and many similar things happen. A range of characters’ points of view are articulated, giving us an insight into a wide range of professional and philosophical perspectives on Antarctica—and Robinson is scrupulously impartial in representing them. The action is also as varied—science is done, difficult terrain is traversed, politics are confronted with ecological reality, ecotage is committed, radical communities are revealed living below the radar, and the power of the natural world to reduce all human priorities to a scramble for survival is forcefully reiterated. Antarctica is featured in the Mars trilogy as a training ground for interplanetary exploration, and will probably play a part in training for any eventual mission in the real world, so the similarities are unsurprising. In many ways, as Robinson tells it, being in Antarctica is very much like being on another planet, and his characters talk about being ‘in the world’ when they’re not on the ice. Its isolation and its harsh environment offer plenty of analogues, but these are somewhat illusory, as Robinson makes clear: another phrase we hear repeated is ‘what’s true in Antarctica is true everywhere else.’ It’s the extremity and the harsh simplicity of the place that makes everything so starkly clear, so black and white.

Robinson’s deep research and informed speculation are not limited to his central topic. He never explicitly tells us when his novel is set, but he gives us certain clues, and my guess is that it’s roughly now. Generally speaking, he’s pretty close to the bullseye in his thinking about what the intervening two decades have brought—although the fact that the vast majority of the narrative is not set ‘in the world’ is helpful to him. However, he’s roughly right about how much climate change is looming over contemporary politics, about the degree of electronic connectivity we now live with (although he doesn’t quite envision the impact of social media), and about the rate of technological change. He overestimates the degree of settlement and activity in Antarctica, but not by a huge amount as far as I can tell, and it makes for a more exciting story to do so (as with his Mars books). Robinson is very alert to ecological degradation and to climate change, but I found it very telling, and indicative of how much public discourse has changed in twenty-four years, that he refers to it as ‘the climate change’—today the term is too well-worn to require an article.

Robinson also failed to predict our current sense of urgency, in which anyone concerned about the climate will tell you quite clearly that all the remaining hydrocarbon reserves need to be kept in the ground. The characters in Antarctica are quite willing to contemplate a sustainable, non-destructive level of extraction in the Antarctic, although they are all already living with the impacts of ‘the climate change’ (the Ross Ice Shelf has melted in Robinson’s future). However, I think what Robinson underestimates is the level of sheer inaction that we’ve seen to date, and the corresponding increase in ‘climate panic’ seen among that minority that is fully cognisant of the risks. Robinson is fundamentally an optimist, a characteristic which has informed every book of his that I’ve read, and his denouement here, as in other novels, sees his characters rolling up their sleeves to continue the work they’ve begun.

Those characters are as sympathetically drawn as ever, and Robinson uses his deep research into the technicalities of their various forms of work to help him imagine the experience of being them—not just when they’re working, but thinking deeply about what sort of person would do what they do, and what kind of understanding of the world would be formed in the exigencies of their working lives. One kind of character I’ve never seen Robinson write is someone who just punches the clock, then goes home to watch TV. His drop-outs are activists and community builders, not pot-heads or slackers, but I find it admirable that his highly motivated cast and optimistic outlook don’t lead him to look at the world or at the various activities he depicts through rose-tinted glasses. He’s very clear on the politics of science, for example, and the role those politics play in the dialectics that advance human knowledge.

Antarctica is quite a concise novel, in comparison to the size of its topic, and to the size of his Mars trilogy, and perhaps it is the clarity I alluded to earlier that enabled him to reign it in at five-hundred and sixty-two pages. Robinson is a very visual writer, a master of the descriptive passage, and the impression I had of Antarctica at the close was of a severe landscape delineated in monochrome, although he zooms in very close to the experience of being there. However, there is clearly a simplicity there that makes it a kind of laboratory for thinking about the rest of the world. The rest of the world, the empirical realm beyond the walls of the laboratory, is one of nuance, of shades of grey, but the purpose of Antarctica in this book, and the purpose of any laboratory, is to cast some of those shades in black and white.

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