More Than a Blank Page
– Antarctica in Fiction –
After my previous posting about Antarctic books and complaining about the dearth of good Antarctica Fiction, Johanna Grabow, a PhD student at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, reached out. She agreed to help us all find better Antarctic fiction and wrote the following blog post! Thanks Johanna!!!
Buried in the Stacks
SHELF – 82-3: (*7) – Behind this inconspicuous shelf number lies the largest collection of fiction in the world dealing with Antarctica. Two rows, six shelves high, in total 30m long. The library of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, England, houses the good, the bad and the ugly of Antarctic fiction. Sci-fi, zombie novels, conspiracy theories, kitschy love stories, action-packed thrillers, and graphic novels all share the same signature and the same setting.
Roaming through shelves packed with names such as Cold Dead, Freezing Point, Ice Station or Blood & Ice, I get the feeling that two-word titles relating to ice and coldness are apparently the height of creativity when it comes to Antarctic (action) fiction. The neatly stacked books, however, also tell a different story: That people are fascinated with the southernmost continent of our world. We are inspired by the vastness of the continent, its remoteness, the dangerous setting, the purity, the awe-inspiring beauty, and also its fragility – and this process is mirrored in the literature dealing with the place.
After all, Antarctica was imagined long before it was discovered. The ancient Greeks thought of a balancing mass opposite the Northern lands. The Antarctic, the opposite of the Arctic, was their logical conclusion. However, it remained a mystery what this landmass looked like. Imaginary realms into the unknown south spoke of hollow earths, polar whirlpools and even inhabitable tropical lands. E.A. Poe’s short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery are the first to fill the blank page of Antarctica.
Then reality surpassed fiction and wrote their own stories resonating with hardship, endurance and sacrifice. With the first expeditions came their travel diaries, among them the undisputed bestseller of Antarctic writing, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. In recent years, novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica or Maria Semple’s highly entertaining bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette transport us to the modern day-to-day life on the continent.
Granted, a lot of the texts set in the Antarctic are not particularly good (a lot of them are self-published and full of printing and spelling mistakes). Thrillers using the continent as a convenient backdrop for hundreds of pages of mindless shooting or metaphors including cold scientists with their frozen hearts slowly melting are just the tip of the iceberg here. There are, however, a number of Antarctic gems out there. Books that are meticulously researched and convey the grandeur of the place through their pages. Whether you are planning on visiting the continent or just daydreaming from your home, here’s a collection of contemporary Antarctic novels you should put on your reading list. No frozen hearts or wild chases on the ice, I promise!
Suggested Antarctic Reading
The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica, edited by Bill Manhire (2004)
A great overview and insight into the world of literature dealing with Antarctica. Poems, short stories, plays and excerpts of novels all populate this anthology and show us the different sides of the continent through an author’s lens. Featuring classics such as The Death of Ulysses, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur” or John Martin Leahy’s horror story “In Amundsen’s Tent”. Next to the first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning novel The Martians, the collection also presents the screenplay of Monty Python’s Scott of the Sahara and one of Bill Manhire’s own poems. After browsing through the collection one thing becomes clear: Antarctica is not a blank page, but filled with colourful stories of survival and unimaginable beauty, stories of love, hate, despair and growing environmental anxiety.
Into the White: Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey by Joanna Grochowicz (2017)
A young adult fiction that gives a fresh take on Scott’s fateful Terra Nova Expedition from 1910-13. Written from the perspective of the different team members, this novel transports us right to the days of never-ending cold, dripping clothes, ambitious endeavours and the hope of reaching the South Pole first. Although the end of the story is well-known, one can’t help but secretly hope Scott and his men survive their ordeal after all while reading this well-researched story.
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (2006)
Another young adult fiction, this time firmly set in the genre of magic realism. Following the protagonist Sym and her imaginary friend and lover Titus Oates through the vast expanse of Antarctica, this novel takes us on a tour de force through betrayal, survival and the coming of age. Including the search for a hollow earth and a final chase over the Devil’s Ballroom, Antarctica is portrayed as merciless, uncanny and hauntingly beautiful.
Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder (2013)
The second novel (after her children’s book Stay) by Jesse Blackadder set in the Antarctic. Focusing on the first women in Antarctica, this superbly written and well-researched historical novel takes us onboard a Norwegian whaling ship in the early 1930s. Following the journey of Ingrid Christensen, Lillemor Rachlew and Mathilde Wegger, the story of the three women are beautifully interwoven with their natural surroundings and their inner struggle to find a place in their respective lives.
Everland by Rebecca Hunt (2014)
Two expeditions – one in 1913 and one in 2012 – start to go awry in this narrative of interwoven histories. Reflecting on the myth-making in the early days of Antarctic exploration, this novel asks who actually writes history and how public opinion and expectation change a story. While the modern-day expedition focuses on questions of leadership, gender and life during a fieldtrip, the early expedition transports us right into the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. A very absorbing read, full of metaphors and hidden meanings.
The Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow (2016)
Resembling Ian McEwan’s climate change novel Solar, this novella was originally published in German. Rich in language and images, it focuses on the frustrated and estranged expedition leader Zeno. Devastated by the death of his glacier in Switzerland and frustrated by the seeming ignorance of his fellow humans, Zeno plans a coup in the Antarctic. A quick read that still resonates a long time afterwards and confronts us with the unpleasant question of how we as humans shape and gradually destroy our environment.
The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (2010)
The author has won two National Science Foundation Artists & Writers fellowships and travelled to the continent several times. Inspired by her own impressions on the ice, this thoughtfully written declaration of love for the continent gives a great insight into life on a research station, human emotions and struggles, and the interplay between science and the arts. One of the few novels dealing with the love between two women on the ice as well.
When the Night comes by Favel Parrett (2013)
Set in both Hobart, Tasmania and the Antarctic, this eloquently written novel follows the story of the young girl Isla and the Danish cook Bo. While Isla tries to find a path in her life and learns to regain trust, Bo must come to terms with his past while working on the Antarctic-bound vessel Nella Dan. From the very start, this book draws the reader in and convinced with its style of narration. Thoughtful, melancholic, and bittersweet – a wonderful and poignant read!
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