A week in books: The polar puritans and punks of our literary ice age

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The Independent Culture

It can hardly have escaped your notice that, in the present cultural climate, ice is the new sand. Last year ended with Sara Wheeler's harrowing biography of Captain Scott's expedition scientist, the haunted Apsley Cherry-Garrard. This one began, in a blizzard of hype, with Kenneth Branagh and Charles Sturridge bringing more than a touch of Henry V to the deep-frozen upper lips of Ernest Shackleton and his team. "Cold" books – novels, histories, travel jaunts – fill the catalogues like a dense pack of drifting bergs. I suppose I could list them all for you, but I might be some time...

Readers with a classical taste in polar lit could simply stick with the reprint of Alfred Lansing's 1959 account Endurance: a handsome hardback from Weidenfeld (£10.99), adorned with Frank Hurley's startlingly beautiful photography. Shackleton's doomed ship sits amid the floes like some delicate, wounded beast, strangled and splintered by the encroaching mass of ice.

Meanwhile, anyone who wonders why the planet's Arctic and Antarctic extremities should keep such a grip on the collective imagination may find some clues in John and Mary Gribbin's latest book, Ice Age (Allen Lane, £9.99). This is a brief and elegant history of the research that transformed the notion of ice ages from crackpot speculation (by the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, in 1837) into scientific orthodoxy. The Gribbins have something to add, as they report new evolutionary arguments that link freezes and thaws with the development of human versatility and thus intelligence.

Put crudely, the long waves of glaciation and retreat gave early hominid populations the sort of strenuous workouts that favoured the clever and punished the slow: "Without the astronomical rhythms of the Ice Ages, we would probably still be tree-apes." In this light, you could argue that every story of endurance at the Poles activates a sort of species-memory. Genetically, we've all been there, done that. We survived the Evolutionary Gym.

But not everyone can properly convey the ordeals that lie in wait for voyagers to the ends of the earth. Polar publishing often shelters great tracts of Bad Writing – a wilderness of cut-price sublimity and phoney, unfelt heroics. So it's something of a shock to find a novel of the frozen wastes that, if anything, errs on the side of offhand understatement.

Chasing Moneymaker (Sceptre, £16.99) is the first book by David Masiel, a former seafarer who spent a decade working out of Seattle on Arctic barges and ice-breakers. Followers of Scott or Shackleton will be aghast at his unsavoury crew of polar punks, largely drawn (I presume) from life. The yarn is simple enough. In the novel's first half, the half-crazed itinerant mariner Henry Seine (ironically named, of course) wrecks a boat, the Fearless, and loses its crew. In its finale, he must atone for his sin, in the great Melville-Conrad tradition of the redemptive voyage. With a breaker and a tug, he and his sociopathic cronies venture far into the Arctic pack ice on a mission to rescue a stranded scientist, Dr Moneymaker. The Deep North, naturally enough, seems to draw Seine "to his own death like an alluring and diseased lover".

So far, so predictable. Fans of hulking bergs, finger-slicing snowstorms and famished polar bears will not be disappointed. But what locates Chasing Moneymaker at the finish, not the start, of the 20th century is the laid-back, foul-mouthed attitude of all the sailors. Sir Ernest never had a crew with heavy-duty pharmaceutical habits, nor a wasted, decadent skipper who listens to "gutter punk and an early industrial band called Throbbing Gristle".

What fuels this salty cynicism is not just daredevil recklessness (though they have that in spades) but distrust of the rapacious corporations for which they risk their lives. Exploitation for quick profit, and the environmental ruin that it brings, keeps most of these grungy tars employed. In one heartfelt rant, Seine fumes that "the dirty little secret remained the illusion of infinite growth in a finite system. Go farther north, punch more holes, extract more oil, suck more air. When it's all finished we can fly to fucking Mars."

Ice-bound narratives usually appeal to an idealised past. Their virginal landscapes reflect the equally pure motives of the men who traverse them. For David Masiel, no wintry outpost is free any longer of human greed, and human detritus. Chasing Moneymaker even begins with a stomach-testing chapter about the difficult disposal of a mound of frozen excrement.

As you'll gather, this is scarcely the world's subtlest novel – but as an antidote to polar prissiness, it packs a hard, cold punch. Somehow I can't quite see Ken Branagh in the starring role; now, if Steve Buscemi happened to be free...

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