Books: Heroes below zero

In his Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson made the red planet go green. Now he has followed the mad Brits to Antarctica. Francis Spufford tracks him down
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W hen the Pathfinder probe hurtled down on to Mars this summer, bounced, tumbled, bounced again, and came to rest, a fair few of the millions of people watching knew in their hearts that the NASA pictures of the ochre-beige plain of rubble with the distant hills were only faulty snapshots of a place they already knew, from the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is a writer of great sensuous exactitude, in an American tradition of natural observation that stretches back to Thoreau, and ultimately to Wordsworth. He chooses to work in science fiction because of the speculative engagements between word and world which only SF can provide, but he brings to the genre the scope and sympathy which animated the Victorian novel of ideas.

Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars are (as Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch) "written for grown-up people to read". They are humane, witty, earnest and intricate: they mark their readers indelibly with Robinson's seductive sense of place. His Mars, settled next early century, its red rock gradually colonised by "Persian carpet shreds" of vegetation, is essentially Levantine or Mediterranean in feeling, put through a slight Californian filter. It is also a seriously intended, fully realised utopia, eco-socialist in orientation.

Immediately Robinson finished Blue Mars (and by the look of it, before the imaginative momentum of Mars had faded) the National Science Foundation carried him off to the Antarctic on their artists' and writers' programme. The result is Antarctica (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99), a novel whose apprehension of the particularities of the polar ice is characteristically exquisite. "It was a relief to be writing about what I'd actually seen, after god- knows-how-many years of Mars," Robinson tells me. There was "inevitable leakage" between the two projects: the Dry Valleys in East Antarctica are the closest terrestrial equivalent to the Martian desert, and the life of the Antarctic research stations provides the nearest thing to extraterrestrial isolation.

Surprisingly, though, where the material overlaps, it's the polar book that aims less at caution, at realism. The same utopian denouement that Robinson prepared for with such patience over the 1500 pages of the Mars trilogy rushes in here in a bound.

This time, he explains, he took on what he knew were the same concerns "with a certain playfulness". "There is no denying that putting Antarctica into a utopian novel is a crazed idea." So the hop-skip-jump timetable for the arrival of the benign future, and the "feral" inhabitants of the frozen continent who loom out of the blizzard at the critical moment in Jules Verne airships, are to be taken as - what? As responses to the invitation the Antarctic extends (and always has done) to fill the white space with wishes. "The epigraph is a sign of my awareness." It's from the explorer Amundsen: "The land looks like a fairy tale." And now it behaves like one, too. For Robinson, as for so many previous travellers, the huge mutability of the ice landscape leads the mind toward other transformations one may desire, in people, and in the terms on which they contrive to live together.

He is by temperament someone who reads the state of things as a crisis, and stakes his hopes on transformation. Unlike, for example, the other phenomenally gifted practitioner of American SF at present, Neal Stephenson, he takes no pleasure in the American comedy of appetites, will not assent to the raucous definition of liberty as a cheerful pursuit of home-delivered pizza and mail-order weaponry. Which is not to say that Robinson looks for the abolition of unhappiness - which he calls "our unavoidable grief", our mortal portion, no matter how shining a city on a hill we build. He knows that the best (and wittiest) witness to a fictional utopia is a miserable one. Many of his best views of Mars were angled through the lenses of depression, or of guilty anger. Such things prove that life remains life in the Great Good Place.

But in a playful utopia, where a happy end arrives like the massed weddings topping off a Shakespeare comedy, you can't, Robinson observes, say portentously that "We must change or perish". Perhaps there is less room for the darkness that makes change urgent. In Antarctica, more than in any previous novel, human nature as Robinson writes it seems less fallen than is quite imaginable.

You don't so much hold back assent from the outline of the utopia in this ice romance (workers' co-ops at McMurdo Base), as from the absence in it of greed, cruelty, stupidity, and above all indifference. The tonally enclosed world of a comedy "with weddings at the end" has relaxed the muscles of satire in the prose; the vein of fairy-tale the continent permits has exacted a real price in descriptive astringency. The people are just too nice. And the beautiful balance between pleasure and scepticism has wobbled, which made the last sentences of Pacific Edge (a pre-Martian novel of 1992) the best adieu to a utopian fiction ever written. To Robinson's character there it seemed "that he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the whole world. And at that thought (thinking about it) he began to laugh."

But there is a fascinating richness in Robinson's encounter with all the past wishes that have snowed down on the southern continent, laminating its extraordinary landscape with layer upon layer of meaning and interpretation. In his own travels, and in the book, the British explorers of the century's opening were an inevitable presence. Robinson has stood in Captain Scott's 1910 hut, a potent site for the imagination. He has responded with the extra force that comes of direct knowledge to Antarctica's greatest book: Apsley Cherry-Garrard's chronicle of the Scott expedition, The Worst Journey in the World.

A greater superficial mismatch is hard to envisage: Cherry-Garrard's impacted Edwardian reticence, versus Robinson's Californian informality. But with the unobtrusive lightness that allowed him to finesse so many of the difficult grandeurs of epic in the Mars books, he steals in Antarctica towards the tricky inward experience of those archaic Brits, "conquering the world with bad boy scout equipment".

The cultures cross-fertilise. He has an answer based on a Californian poetics of landscape to the central question in the history of British disaster at the poles: what intangible cluster of feelings was it, worthy of respect, that compensated the Edwardians so powerfully for their technical incompetence? He has a respect, apt to a writer of utopias, for the optimism of Scott's lieutenant, "Birdie" Bowers. Not an evasion, he insists; not "a matter of somewhat obtuse intelligence": a moral achievement, a stance deliberately maintained.