This was written in 1997, after his Mars Trilogy (which by the way I LOVED LOVED LOVED.) In Antartica he does what I think Robinson does best –vivid, living descriptions of the land, the landscape, the environment. He makes the readers feel that we are there. That’s why I loved the Mars Trilogy. The characters were fascinating, but the descriptions of the planet were just wonderful. It made be believe in Mars. lol The same for Antarctica — I had to put on a sweater to read this book! Yeah, that good.
Set in a future that is about 50 years from now, where the earth’s population has grown to 10 billion, the story is built on a peripatetic U. S. Senator whose focus is the environment, and the Senator’s staff guy. The Senator learns of some illegal groups searching for oil in Antarctica so he sends his staff guy Wade to investigate, see what he can find out. Wade travels to McMurdo Station, the only sizable settlement on the continent and checks in with the woman in charge.
The characters each have a storyline of their own, and the interest is in how they come together. There is Val, an Amazon of a woman who leads tours in the Footsteps program, where groups follow the routes of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, some groups trying to replicate not only the route but with the same kind of equipment. There is X, shortened from Ex, as in ex boyfriend, a man who came to the Antartic to find something interesting in life, and who was dumped by Val, hence his nickname. These are the most prominent in a big cast, but the basic plotline is the idea that Antarctica belongs to no one, no one owns it, but a multi-nation treaty has established strict guidelines as to who can visit the continent and what activities they may engage in and where they may go. There is a small group attempting to live primarily off the land, leaving no footprint, as an experiment, but it is difficult because the continent has no sources of food except the penguins and a large fish which can be caught.
But really, the principle character of the book is the continent itself, its vastness, its intense cold, its unending whiteness, and its emptiness, “a fifth element beyond space and time, emptiness in its supreme degree.” And the effect that global warming or climate change is having on the various features of the continent. Secondary to this is the history of the exploration of the continent, told through a Chinese tourist who is a feng shui master, visiting different landscapes of the world, and through Val on her Footsteps treks. There really is quite a lot of painless history of the explorers, and I loved it.
There is also a lot about the greed and corruption of nations and individuals, which we saw in the Mars Trilogy, and about what is happening to the earth, and some exposition about capitalism, the dominant economic order, which subsumes everything else.
Really liked it. I didn’t feel it was as strong as the Mars Trilogy, which felt like a passionate undertaking, nor as strong as 2312, which was about Mercury, but I found it a page turner in its own right.