You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2020.

South by Ernest Shackleton (1919) 505 p.


Polar exploration never interested me when I was younger. I had a settler’s heart, probably from playing too much Age of Empires. By all means tell me about the Vikings in Vinland, or the Maori in New Zealand, or the discovery of tropical islands… but why would anybody want to explore a frozen wasteland? What joy could there be in cresting a ridge only to see more inhospitable ice, rather than a green and pleasant land?

In the same way that – as an adult with an appreciation of my own mortality and fragility – I’ve become more interested in nuclear war fiction, which as a teenager I spurned in favour of “cosy catastrophe” apocalypses, the age of polar exploration is more interesting to me now. This is partly due to the excellent TV series The Terror, which is a retelling of Franklin’s lost expedition with a supernatural twist, and is one of the best TV series of the past decade which I urge everybody to watch. But exploration is perhaps the wrong word; it’s the survival aspect I find compelling, the attempt to salvage lives from a catastrophe. I was vaguely aware of aspects of Shackleton’s expedition, but this was the first time I properly read about it, and it’s a genuinely impressive feat of heroism.

The official name of the expedition was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, launched in 1914 with the aim of being the first party to cross Antarctica from one coast to another. (Amundsen had reached the South Pole and then retraced his steps in 1911, pipping the doomed Scott to the post by just five weeks). To do so, the vessel Endurance would depart the Falklands and land on the coast of the Weddell Sea, while the vessel Aurora would depart New Zealand and make base near McMurdo Sound, sending parties inland to lay supply depots for the overland party from the Endurance that would be approaching from the South Pole. Both sides of the expedition met with disaster, but the inspiring part of the story is how they managed to survive – and in Shackleton’s case, leading the crew of the Endurance, how he managed to get the entire party home safe without a single loss of life.

Shackleton’s side of the story is the more famous and compelling one. In sight of the Antarctic mainland, the Endurance become stuck in unusually thick sea ice in the southern winter of 1915, and drifted with the pack for eight months before finally being crushed, leaving Shackleton and two dozen men camped out on the ice. As the pack began to break apart in the autumn of 1916, they took to their three remaining lifeboats from the Endurance and sailed for the South Shetlands, the closest ice-free land. Here they landed at Elephant Island, stuck on a miserable surf-pounded beach below towering cliffs, with no likely prospect of rescue nor long-term survival, and the southern winter setting in.

Next is the most impressive part of their entire ordeal, in which Shackleton and four others took one of the lifeboats and set out to fetch help from the only place they could feasibly reach given the prevailing winds: not the few hundred miles to the Falklands, but the 800 miles (about the distance from London to Rome) to South Georgia, where a handful of lonely outposts constituted the end of the civilised world for teams of whalers, but the beginning of it for Shackleton and company. This journey in a 22-foot boat across some of the roughest oceans in the world, at the beginning of winter, with only ten hours of light per day, is now considered one of the greatest small boat journeys in human history, alongside Bligh’s post-mutiny navigation to Timor. I think the bit that I find so personally compelling is that, due to a quirk of wind, geography and weather conditions, they were forced to land on the uninhabited western side of the island; which meant that after everything they’d been through – across all that vast ocean – they were still 20-odd miles away from help on the island’s east coast, as the crow flies. That was 20 miles of treacherous mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers on a remote island which nobody had ever bothered to explore the interior of before. There’s something fascinating about all that vast, ancient amount of land with no human presence in it across history until Shackleton and his band of weary, bearded, exhausted survivors came slowly clambering through it – knowing that if they made a mistake, if they fell into a crevasse or fell asleep in bad conditions (as nearly happened at one point) it would spell not only their own deaths, but probably the deaths of the two dozen men left behind to shelter through the winter on Elephant Island.

The tale of the survivors of the Endurance is a fundamentally compelling story, and this is normally the part where I’d gripe about it not being told in a compelling way. But Shackleton is a surprisingly talented writer, with turns of phrase and moments of candour even behind all the stiff-upper-lip tosh you’d expect from a man of his generation, and he has an eye for the most illustrative passages that he lifts from the diaries of his men. This is one of them describing the moment the Endurance finally slipped beneath the ice after being crushed for weeks:

“November 21, 1915.—This evening, as we were lying in our tents we heard the Boss call out, ‘She’s going, boys!’ We were out in a second and up on the look-out station and other points of vantage, and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony. She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her for ever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it, for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outer world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasised, our desolation more complete. The loss of the ship sent a slight wave of depression over the camp. No one said much, but we cannot be blamed for feeling it in a sentimental way. It seemed as if the moment of severance from many cherished associations, many happy moments, even stirring incidents, had come as she silently up-ended to find a last resting-place beneath the ice on which we now stand. When one knows every little nook and corner of one’s ship as we did, and has helped her time and again in the fight that she made so well, the actual parting was not without its pathos, quite apart from one’s own desolation, and I doubt if there was one amongst us who did not feel some personal emotion when Sir Ernest, standing on the top of the look-out, said somewhat sadly and quietly, “She’s gone, boys.”

This reminded me, I suppose, of the movie Titanic: the moment when the ship goes down and then there are just the lifeboats floating in the middle of a vast ocean. A huge vessel, even crippled and dying, is the focal point of the landscape; and its sudden absence changes the landscape both physically and psychologically.

This was another patch of writing I quite liked, as the three lifeboats arrive at Elephant Island, and the men set foot on dry land for the first time in more than a year:

A curious spectacle met my eyes when I landed the second time. Some of the men were reeling about the beach as if they had found an unlimited supply of alcoholic liquor on the desolate shore. They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold. The smiles and laughter, which caused cracked lips to bleed afresh, and the gleeful exclamations at the sight of two live seals on the beach made me think for a moment of that glittering hour of childhood when the door is open at last and the Christmas-tree in all its wonder bursts upon the vision.

That pebbly beach, after months spent camped on treacherous pack ice, is a sanctuary to them:

The fairy princess who would not rest on her seven downy mattresses because a pea lay underneath the pile might not have understood the pleasure we all derived from the irregularities of the stones, which could not possibly break beneath us or drift away; the very searching lumps were sweet reminders of our safety.

So for something that’s a hundred years old it’s well-written and engaging. A major issue with South, however, is its structure. Shackleton recounts his own personal voyage on the Weddell Sea side, culminating in his rescue of the stranded bulk of the party on Elephant Island – but then rewinds the clock and begins telling the story, from the beginning, of the Aurora’s half of the expedition on the other side of Antarctica. Now, full credit to the lads who found themselves stranded on the mainland when the Aurora was forced away: they had an even rougher time of it, including three deaths. But from a storytelling perspective, it lacks the three-act perfection of Shackleton’s story, not to mention the benefit of his personal viewpoint. He’s reduced to recounting their ordeal second-hand, and at times it feels like reading a dispassionate ship’s log. I can understand why Shackleton felt their story needed to be told, but it surely would have been better served by chapters woven among the rest of the narrative to form a chronological whole, rather than the incongruous winding-back of the clock we get instead; one which then winds itself back a second time, to wrap up the final forty pages with the aimless and uninteresting drift of the Aurora. I’ll concede that maybe inserting chapters from the Aurora and her stranded depot-laying party might have ruined the tone of isolation and loneliness experienced by Shackleton’s crew; but if that’s the case, cut them entirely. Their story still would have been told somewhere else. South, as a book, suffers from including them. Nonetheless, it’s still an engaging first-hand account of one of history’s greatest survival stories.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson (2003) 399 p.

Blind Lake


Now this is a real classic of a cover: a marvellous gem from the late 1990s/early 2000s period of awfully generated computer graphics.

Fortunately it’s a real classic of a first contact story, too. The titular Blind Lake is a federal scientific facility in Minnesota, where researchers use a network of quantum computers and scientific processes they don’t quite understand to study life on a dry and arid planet orbiting 47 Ursae Majoris. They cannot interact or communicate in any way: they can only watch, observing an individual of the large, chitinous sentient species they have dubbed the Subject. The Subject lives in a city, one of many on the planet, and lives a life which to human eyes seems tediously repetitive: he works in a factory assembling machine parts, feeds in a dank well with others of his species, draws glyphs on the wall of his sleeping chamber and has his blood sucked in the night by tiny creatures which might be parasites, symbiotes or offspring. The researchers don’t know; there’s much they don’t know, and they resist the urge to anthropomorphise while collating endless observations.

On the same day that a trio of journalists (including our plucky yet flawed hero) arrive at Blind Lake to begin writing a piece for a New York magazine, disquieting ripples begin occurring in the community. Traffic is backed up; the gates appear to to be closed. The occasional security lockdown isn’t unknown to Blind Lake, but this one also involves a block against communication with the outside world: no data comes in, no data goes out. As the hours and then days go by without explanation, complete with an unmanned military resupply and fatal attempt by one of the few thousand stuck inside the facility to get past the gates, it becomes clear that the authorities have placed an unexplained, indefinite quarantine on Blind Lake. At the same time, the Subject breaks his monotonous routine and departs the city for the desert wilderness of his planet.

Blind Lake is thus a dual mystery, engaging the reader with both the fascinating extra-terrestrial mystery of an evocatively rendered alien world and what appears to be some kind of unexpected pilgrimage, and the more down-to-earth airport thriller mystery of why this sensitive research facility has been placed into indefinite isolation without any word from the outside wold. As sci-fi goes, Wilson’s characters are competently drawn, his scenarios largely plausible, and – most importantly – both these mysteries have satisfying resolutions. I can’t say Blind Lake emotionally moved me or that I’ll remember the names of any of the characters by next week, but I can say that it’s the most engaging and compulsively readable sci-fi novel I’ve picked up since Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Archive Calendar

August 2020