A Glacial Escape: Connecting Past, Present & Future in the Novel “Antarctica”

Scientifically, we know glaciers as slow-moving bodies or rivers of ice, formed on mountaintops and near the poles by repeated processes of snow accumulation and compaction over lengthy periods of time. Through science we attempt to maintain an objective distance from the world’s glaciers, positing them as objects unconnected and detached from human experience. However, humans give meaning and purpose to glacial environments. We do this by attaching symbols, metaphors and analogies to the natural world in our literature and observations as we make sense of environments outside ourselves.

This GlacierHub series on “glaciers in the symbolic domain” began with “The Myth of Glacial Safety,” which examined society’s propensity to attach perceived safety to unstable glacial environments. Next, we considered the influence of glacial environments on human relationships in Journey Over Gobrin Glacier: Le Guin, Environmentalism and Science Fiction. Today’s article spotlights author Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1997 novel, “Antarctica,” which explores how humans utilize glacial environments to escape from modern-day living and connect to past and future, transcending their own lifetimes.

Gerlache strait and Andvord Bay, Antarctica (Source: Rita Willaert/Flickr).

Robinson is a revered American science fiction writer, best known for his “Mars Trilogy” chronicling the settlement and eventual terraforming of the planet Mars through powerful personal relationships and perspectives. The novel ultimately won Robinson a Nebula Award (1993) and Hugo and Locus Awards (1994 and 1997). Mars Trilogy pre-dates and subsequently foregrounds his novel “Antarctica,” which shifts the focus from alien worlds to seemingly alien worlds on Earth. The main themes found in his work are preservation of nature, ecology, sustainability, environmental justice and climate change.

On its surface, “Antarctica” is a novel of societal progress and scientific exploration. Its three main characters, X, an American college graduate named for being extra large; Valerie Kenning, a tour guide; and Wade Norton, a politician’s assistant, take turns telling the story from their own perspective.

Glaciers in the foothills of Royal Society Range (Source: Earth Reference).

X, who arrived in Antarctica for adventure and exploration, is the first character to develop a unique relationship with the glaciers around him. His frequent diversions from his group, often alone, take him both under and atop many of Antarctica’s real glaciers featured in the novel.

“X’s nighttime ascent of the Skelton [glacier], through the spectacular peaks of the Royal Society Range, had been the most exciting part of his trip so far, crunching up causeway after causeway of crushed ice concrete, with serac fields like dim shattered Manhattans passing right to left,” the text reads.

The Skelton glacier, one of X’s preferred travel routes, is also historically the glacier chosen as the passageway for mountaineer Vivian Fuchs’ legendary first overland crossing of the continent in 1957. X’s excursion up the glacier also featured “seracs,” which are columns of glacial ice formed by intersecting crevasses on a glacier. Because of their instability and propensity to collapse, seracs are typically viewed as dangers to mountaineers; however, X is unafraid of their presence and likens them to a “shattered Manhattan.” This representation of a glacial phenomenon as a destroyed city makes X feel as though he has escaped the man-made “built” world and connects him to a time, presumably in the future, when cities will no longer be a dominant feature in the geography of the planet.


The purpose for Wade’s Antarctica travels were to evaluate political conditions for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty System for Wade’s politician employer, a U.S. Senator. During intense moments in the novel, Wade often reflected on the glaciers around him. “To distract himself he looked at the brilliant white glacier pouring down from the head of the valley. It was the middle of the night, and yet the mass of ice was glowing in the sunlight like an intrusion from some brighter dimension,” Robinson writes. In this moment the glacier allows Wade to step out of time. Wade’s reference to the glacier being from “another dimension” helps him experience a time that existed before him, and will continue to exist after his own lifetime. The glacier is a welcome distraction and escape from the stresses of his relationships and modern-day living.

The specific glacier distracting Wade in the narrative is the Wright Upper glacier, a place known as “the  labyrinth.” This particular glacier features an ice flow called the Airdevronsix Falls that is buttressed by harsh, dry rock peaks. The juxtaposition between the crystalline falls and brown rock peaks is striking.

Wright Upper Glacier, Airdevronsix Falls from the polar plateau. The falls are over 1500 feet high (Source: brookpeterson/Flickr).

While the narratives in the novel focus on the work and relationships of each of the characters, many scholars agree that the real main character is the frozen, inhospitable environment of Antarctica itself, including the glaciers that the characters frequently travel through, on and around.

In their quest for new knowledge as well as scientific and political breakthroughs in the frozen and inhospitable landscape, these characters are given an escape from their worldly pursuits through their experiences with the glaciers. Robinson purposefully utilizes Antarctica’s real glaciers, history and topography in his novel to give readers the same experience. The glaciers in the novel symbolize how each character transcends their current time. Robinson’s literature uses these symbols to aid people in making sense of the world around them.






Journey Over Gobrin Glacier: Le Guin, Environmentalism and Science Fiction

Two beings from different worlds rely on each other for safety and survival as they traverse one of science fiction’s most famous ice sheets: the Gobrin Glacier. First, we meet the envoy, Genly Ai, an Earthling whose cultural blindness repeatedly endangers him on an icy, remote planet. His rescuer is Estraven, the androgynous Gethenian and exiled politician from Karhide. Their journey through Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe demonstrates how glacial settings inform fictional narratives, prompting readers to greater understandings of both science and themselves.

The original cover art for “The Left Hand of Darkness” (Source: Alex Ebel/”The Left Hand of Darkness“).

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was one of the most admired American science fiction novelists. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Le Guin earned an M.A. from Columbia University before briefly embarking on her doctoral studies in French, only to choose marriage instead. Many consider “The Left Hand of Darkness,” published in 1969, to be her greatest novel. She became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Hugo Award (1969) and the Nebula Award (1970) for the work.

Many audiences read “The Left Hand of Darkness” as a story of gender. Indeed, one prominent and consuming plotline is the internal transformation of the Earth-born main character in response to the cyclical gender-changing, yet primarily androgynous alien he encounters and develops a relationship with. However, some scholars are now focusing on the intersection of environmentalism and science fiction. In the genre of science fiction, we are able to see ways in which the natural world imbues human nature.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Gerry Canavan, professor of English at Marquette University and author of “Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction” (2014), discussed the role of the environment in science fiction. “Once you understand that the environment is something that shapes the horizon of what is possible for a society to achieve, and something that is being put under dire threat by the negative externalities of industrial capitalism, it becomes a major concern for speculation about the future,” Canavan said.

Le Guin’s map of Gethen, as it appears in the endpapers of the first volume of “The Hainish Novels & Stories” (Source: BigThink).

“The Left Hand of Darkness” is primarily set on the planet “Gethen,” nicknamed “Winter” for its bitterly cold and unchanging climate. The main character, Genly Ai, is an envoy to Gethen representing the “League of All Worlds,” whose purpose is to persuade the Gethenians to join their coalition. During his travels, Ai finds himself imprisoned in a hostile country. When Estraven breaks Ai out of prison, the two realize their only way back to safety is over 800 miles of glacier ice.

The “magnificent and unspeakable desolation” of Gobrin Glacier provides total isolation for Ai and Estraven. The glacier itself is described as “blinding and horizonless to the utmost north, a white, a white the eyes could not look upon.”

In the novel, the glacier is represented metaphorically as an unknowable, unseeable landscape enabling Ai and Estraven to transcend the material world. The glacial winds, “blowing north to south, off the glacier,” continually bore down on the characters from their left, eventually freezing Ai’s left eye shut and prompting physical intimacy between the two when Estraven “thawed it open, with breathe and tongue.”

Psychological intimacy followed when for many nights the glacial storms made incredible noise, and the characters “could not converse by voice, unless we shouted with our heads together.” To continue their conversations non-verbally, Ai teaches Estraven his “Mindspeech” skills, through which they “shared whatever we had worth sharing.” Together, their physical and psychological journey over the glacier catalyzes their journey inward; a journey toward a greater self-determination and awareness of each other.

“A quiet night on the Gobrin Glacier” (Source: KisTithen/Tumblr)

What follows is a narrative where trust, care and understanding flourish between Ai and Estraven on the glacier. They protect one another while subtly revealing their vulnerabilities, teach each other their respective cultures and languages, and through their learning, find themselves to be more alike than different. The intensity of the whiteness surrounding them leads to a mutual “dark night of the soul.” Thus, the frigid, inhospitable, unforgiving conditions of the glacier melt the otherness that once existed between them.

In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” we view the glacier as both a setting and a character; the Gobrin Glacier is the preeminent force that shapes Ai and Estraven. The glacier contextualizes the meanings that both characters give to their experiences of each other and ultimately to their journey over the ice.

Of Le Guin’s environmentalism in science fiction, Canavan says, “She understands the way that human societies are embedded in a natural context rather than existing apart from it. So her speculative societies are places that really exist in a natural context and which make sense given that distribution of living things and natural resources.”

By placing Ai and Estraven on a glacier, Le Guin does more than provide a location for each character’s self-defining trials, she utilizes the environment— the glacier— as a metaphor for Ai and Estraven’s journey to their most true and authentic selves.