Robinson, Kim Stanley. 1998. Antarctica. New York: Bantam.

Reviewed 24 July 1998

Antarctica (cover) Another novel by Kim Stanley Robinson that focuses on survival and ecology in a harsh environment. Ho-hum, right? Not exactly. Mr. Robinson's earlier Mars books—Red Mars (3 stars), Green Mars (3 stars), and Blue Mars (3 stars)—are all decent, worthwhile efforts, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Antarctica succeeds where the Mars books fail, however, in making all of the characters, including the brooding continent itself, really talk to each other.

A book about the coldest place on Earth had a certain attraction to me in the midst of a summer heatwave; it was much more pleasant to read and think about wind chills of 100 below than heat indexes of 100 above. But, more importantly, the characters all seem to belong to Antarctica, unlike the characters in the Mars books. For example, Frank Chalmers never seems to do more than make himself a Washington power broker who's just out of town for a bit in Red Mars. On the other hand, Wade Norton (and, for that matter, his boss Senator Phil Chase) are real Washington people, taking various trips from Washington but still "there" and "here" at the same time.

The fuller characterization is another attraction. This is not to imply that the Mars books had "bad" characters—just characters that were not nearly as good as they could have been. Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Phyllis Boyle, Sax Russell, and John Boone become fairly well developed, but they start off as stereotyped caricatures, not full characters. (If this is meant to suggest that only in the true wilderness does real character develop, it fails to do so.) On the other hand, in Antarctica, the characters all start out as people with warts and strengths, including Antarctica itself. This is much more satisfactory.

The plot is not all that complex. Then again, contemporary plots are never all that complex. Senator Chase sends Wade Norton down to Antarctica to investigate some unexplained losses—presumably thefts—from various Antarctic bases and convoys. He finds that most of the "residents" are not quite normal people, and eventually discovers that there is a significant population of indigenies. Meanwhile, other significant characters (Val and X) are having their own job-related difficulties, generally caused by macho jerks. Finally, there's a major terrorist attack on infrastructure that partially strands Wade, Val, and X in a severe storm. Through their own efforts and a minor deus ex machina, they survive, confront the terrorists, and successfully resolve an old, emotional controversy with nothing more than promises.

Antarctica's major problem is the same flaw that so undermined the Mars books: Mr. Robinson's cheap use of terrorist bombings, combined with a voluntary outcast ("nativist") group that isn't entirely responsible for the bombings (but gets blamed anyway). This is much less an issue in Antarctica, because the controversy is already "live" prior to the beginning of the plot. The Mars books artificially build controversy within the novels; it's a controversy that I can't credit, given the stunning example of environmental management we've created on this planet.

Finally, Antarctica is about the right length for the story that it tells, and the lush, inviting description is very well integrated into plot and character development. This 500-page book actually seemed a bit short, which is a compliment to Mr. Robinson's writing ability. (It also seems a bit like a travel brochure, but that's not entirely unexpected, given the first few lines of the book.)

Overall rating: 4 stars
This is what the Mars books should have been. Mr. Robinson's neighborhood this time comes alive as a character in the story, with the lush description much more carefully integrated into the action. The characters are much more "alive," too—they're all members, in their different ways, of the Why Be Normal Club. Now, if Mr. Robinson, and terrorists everywhere, would just advance from the idea of bombs as the most appropriate means of changing government policy . . .

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