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.
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.
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.
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.