Fiction Reviews

Arctic Rising

(2012) Tobias S. Buckell, Del Rey, £7.99, pbk, 339pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95352-2


Sometimes science fiction thrills us with people dashing round in fleets of faster-than-light spaceships, firing their ray guns in all directions (a genre known to some of us as space opera). Sometimes science fiction is set well into the future and looks thoughtfully at how we and our societies may have changed, particularly as the result of the never-ending development of technology. Sometimes science fiction just gets us to look at things from a different perspective and makes us think. This book does none of those things; the cover quotes 'Tobias Buckell is stretching the horizons of science fiction' but I would beg to differ. Being set in the future, Arctic Rising can certainly be categorised as science fiction but does it stretch the horizons? Well, no; it is simply a fast-paced thriller set only a few years hence.

The date in which the novel is set is not given, but I would guess it to be somewhere about or approaching the middle of this (the 21st) century. The Arctic ice has melted, resulting in rising sea levels and really low-lying islands having disappeared. The Arctic is now open ocean and the Northwest Passage is a reality, there are new routes for shipping, and the resources once trapped beneath the ice are accessible and ripe for exploitation. The temperate zones have moved towards the poles, resulting in even hotter and more desolate lands nearer the equator whilst the more northern countries are now warmer, have good agriculture, and so are thriving. The balance of international power has somewhat changed. The only ice left at the North Pole is the small island, and new country, of Thule, and even there the ice is artificially maintained.

Whilst there are now new reserves of oil and gas, the world is still running out of them; oil is mostly reserved for the petrochemical industry (we need plastics) and wherever possible energy is obtained from renewable sources. Solar power, wind power, and nuclear power are (mostly) the order of the day. Even the armies of the major countries rely on portable solar and nuclear power plants, along with the likes of bio-diesel; gone are the days when they happily burned oil products.

As the story opens, Anika Duncan is on patrol above the Arctic Ocean, piloting an airship (much more fuel efficient than an aeroplane) of the United Nations Polar Guard (UNPG). She and her co-pilot are there to keep an eye on marine vessels, on the lookout for smuggling, dumping of toxic materials, and other illegal activities. Spotting an old oil-burner they take a closer look, mostly because of its polluting plume of smoke. Records show it had earlier been checked and cleared by their colleagues of the Greenland Polar Guard, so they are surprised when the neutron scatter camera picks up signs of radiation; they are even more surprised when the crew start shooting at them with RPGs.

Within moments their craft has succumbed and ditches in the water; fortunately the airship is in constant and automatic communication with their base and the rescue call goes out immediately. Being standard practice to wear their cold-sea survival suits at all times, they survive the experience and are picked up by a nearby vessel.

Before long, the offending vessel has been identified and arrested but there is no sign of any cargo; whatever the trigger-happy crew were hiding, it has been dumped at sea or transferred elsewhere. Anika is informed that the recorded telemetry from their airship showed no sign of radiation readings and that she must have misread her instruments. Knowing that the gear was old and that the readings were significant, especially as someone was shooting at them because of what they had seen, Anika had made a rushed copy of the readings even as they were sinking into the sea. She still has the backup chip with her and tells her colleagues that she has the evidence.

That night, returning home (on an eco-friendly electric motorcycle) from a drink with her friend Vy at the local nightclub, the car behind deliberately swerves into her. Being a survivor of the wars in Africa, she realises at the last moment that this is no accident, veers, and drops the bike. Her attacker makes it clear he wants the backup chip and also, whilst at it, no surviving witnesses; fortunately for Anika, she learnt a lot in those wars and it is the attacker who looses out. She phones her neighbour for help, only to be told that the UNPG's MPs are searching her house. Deeply troubled, she goes to see her boss, Commander Claude, who claims to know nothing about such a search and insists they get over to her house immediately. As Claude’s MPs go ahead and open the door there is a mighty explosion, killing both of them and destroying the house. Whoever her visitors had been, they were not the Good Guys and somebody really, really wants her dead and silent. Pressing the backup chip, her evidence, into the hand of her badly injured boss, Anika goes on the run.

She returns to Vy, who not only owns the local night club but is also one of the biggest drug dealers in the area and knows a lot of “useful” people, who sends her on her way to find out what is really going on. Shortly afterwards, Vy finds herself also on the run, as are some of her friends and colleagues. Whoever is behind the whole thing, they are big, powerful, have contacts everywhere, and the wherewithal to use (or abuse) the forces of law and order. The only clues they pick up are: one - someone had recently stolen a nuclear device in Siberia, and two - the Gaia Corporation (a very rich industrial organisation who have done much eco-goodness) are up to something special.

The questions are, of course, what is Gaia up to, who else is doing what, and what will it all mean to the world? Will Anika find out before someone finally succeeds in killing her? Will Anika save the world from whatever nasty plans are afoot?

This is an enjoyable page-turner. The chapters are short and therefore there are many opportunities to put the book down, but the writing is engaging and I found myself not putting it down very often. The story flows very well and, once it has got going, the pace keeps up throughout. I did wonder, though, why it was that “they” were still so intent on silencing Anika once the cat was out of the bag; after all, by now the world’s intelligence agencies know about the stolen nuclear device, they know about the airship having been shot down, they have put two and two together and realised that the device is somewhere in the Arctic, and are busy sending in the military. Anika’s proof of the radiation readings is of no further consequence to anyone - so why keep chasing her? Perhaps it is like a James Bond movie - it is best not to look too closely at the plot details but simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Strangely, there is no mention of anything south of the equator; it as if the Earth has only the one hemisphere. One presumes that the Antarctic ice has also melted and therefore that the continent of Antarctica is also open for exploitation - but nothing about this was said. I would have thought that the world would have noticed the south had also warmed and, given the motivation of some of the protagonists in this adventure, I was surprised that no elements of the story occurred there.

As for the science fiction aspects, these are a little lacking. The story is set a little into the future, there has been the predictable global warming, the equally predictable move away from fossil fuels, and Gaia’s plans involve technology we do not yet have but are talking about in magazines and colour supplements. The story offers little in the way of technical advancement or invention and the general technology is still pretty much the same as we have today (though with an increasing move to greener power sources); it seems that most development must have been concentrated on ways of dealing with the planetary warming.

Think of this not as hard science fiction but as a very-near-future thriller and you will be in the right ballpark. As a thriller, I found it pleasantly entertaining and enjoyable. But then, I love James Bond movies.

Peter Tyers

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