I may be a wee bit obsessed with Antarctica.
I’ve wanted to travel there ever since I read Bill Manhire’s collection, The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica as a first-year university student, shortly followed by HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Manhire’s collection of writings span eight centuries – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Ursula Le Guin to Manhire himself, and postulate an Antarctica that is at once both intoxicating and horrific. Manhire was part of the Antarctica New Zealand Artists to Antarctica expedition in 1998, and he
To writers, Antarctica is symbolic of many things – a final frontier, humankind’s inability to comprehend the vastness of the universe and our place in it, loneliness, isolation, wonder, adventure, unforgiveness, and a sense that we’re not in control of the earth or our destinies. As Antarctic science reveals the devastating effects of the climate changes we’re wrought, Antarctica also serves as a symbol of reasoned argument, of sobering evidence, of our own stupidity.
It’s no wonder so many writers have been captivated by the frozen continent as I have. Here are some of my favourite novels that feature Antarctica.
1. Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson (1971)
This early eco-thriller is well-known not just for being an excellent read, but for contextualizing within its narrative many of the most interesting questions around human interference and habitation on the ice. Robinson deals with non-European cultural perspectives of Antarctica through scattered haiku’s of his Chinese poet character, explores the role of women in Antarctica exploration and the idea of an indigenous population. This book relies heavily on research and experiences the author had while on the US equivalent of Artists to Antarctica.
2. Blood and Ice, Robert Masello, (2009).
A troubled journalist is commissioned to write a feature article about a remote Antarctic research station. While there he discovers two bodies encased in the ice. The pair – a man and a woman – are chained together, and wearing clothes from the 1800s. As the bodies are brought to the surface and the ice around them begins to thaw, the journalist is drawn into a horrific supernatural world where what is dead is not always gone.
I loved the combination of hard-boiled crime and supernatural thriller. Although a significant amount of this book is set in Antarctica, and the frozen continent plays a vital role in the book, the story also spans four other continents and several centuries.
Read Blood and Ice.
3. At the Mountains of Madness. H P Lovecraft, (1931)
One of Lovecraft’s most famous stories (and also his longers), At the Mountains of Madness follows a disastrous scientific expedition to Antarctica where Miskatonic University explorers uncover a hidden city and prehistoric life-forms. Then things get scary, and scarier.
Lovecraft had a lifelong interest in Antarctic exploration, although he was bitterly averse to the cold. He was also heavily inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, although of course, he gave his story his own cosmic horror spin.
4. The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
People in The City are dead. They live in The City only as long as someone alive on earth remembers them. The City expands and contracts as needed to accommodate the dead within. On earth, the polar ice caps are melting and the Coca Cola company have sent an expedition to Antarctica to research the feasibility of melting ice to make soft drinks. Biological weapons set off cause chaos both on earth and in The City, and our heroine Laura Byrd is trapped between them.
This is a bizarre and utterly brilliant book that explores a dystopian future and asks important questions about climate change and commercialization.
5. The Birthday Boys, Beryl Bainbridge (1991)
There had to be at least one historical novel about Antarctic exploration on this list. I chose Bainbridge because I found it to be well researched, exciting, and brilliantly executed, but also because it tells a different story than the triumph of man over nature. The story follows five accounts of Scott’s 1919-13 expedition, and each account differs, with unreliable narrators abounding and the reader left to make up their own mind. If you enjoyed, as I did, An Instance of the Fingerpost, you’ll dig this book.
Read The Birthday Boys
6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Maria Sample (2012)
This is a comedy story narrated by 15-year-old Bee Branch, whose agoraphobic architect mother Bernadette goes missing just before a big family trip to Antarctica. It’s a little bit bizarre and completely wonderful.
7. Troubling a Star, Madeleine L’Engle (1994)
Part of her famous Austin family young adult suspense series, L’Engle sends her popular protagonist Vicky Austin to Antarctica. The first chapter begins with Vicky stranded on an iceberg, and the story goes back in time to how she got there, picking up high-risk political and ecological intrigue. There’s an environmental thread woven through the narrative, and Vicky is such a fun character you will totally fall in love.
Read Troubling A Star.
What I love about this list is how different all these books are. We have adventure novels and crime thrillers alongside supernatural horror and young adult suspense. Do you have any favourite novels about Antarctica that I’ve missed?