PROS: Imaginative speculation and world building; action/adventure plot that expands as it develops; good characterization.
CONS: Beats of the plotting in the final fifth of the novel feel a bit off.
VERDICT: Buckell sails into near future Earth science fiction with gusto.
Science Fiction as a genre has a problem. A genre that has speculated about the future used to have it easy: speculate on high ages of technology just around the corner; exploration of space and beyond; life beyond a sudden nuclear apocalypse that wipes the slate clean. All bold, solid, clear and plenty of room for science fiction of the first order.
However, the near-to-medium future we are getting seems to be developing very differently. We seem headed for a future dominated by climate change and oil depletion. A future where humans are probably not venturing far beyond near-earth orbit, if that far. A future not in bold primary colors but one of more muted, sepia tones. It doesn’t sound like particularly good grist for bold and imaginative future speculation. It’s no wonder that alternate histories and steampunk have exploded in popularity. Many SF writers seem to believe they can’t make stories that appeal to themselves and readers using the template of our probable future*, so going backwards or sidewise or jumping a couple of hundred years ahead is the only way to write science fiction that sells these days.
Or is it?
Tobias Buckell, best known for his series starting with Crystal Rain, has decided to tackle that problem head on in a new standalone novel, Arctic Rising.
Arctic Rising is set fifty years hence. Climate change has just about removed all of the polar ice, except for a remnant at the pole. The Northwest Passage, long searched for by explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, is now a reality. And with the ice gone and temperatures rising elsewhere, the Arctic is undergoing a boom — not only for this new shipping channel, but for the oil reserves, and the virgin territory waiting to be exploited. It’s a boom time at the top of the world.
With boom times comes rough and dangerous conditions, and the potential for trouble. That’s where Anika Duncan comes in. Nigerian, once caught up in some very dark doings in her troubled homeland, she now flies a dirigible for the UN, monitoring shipping traffic across the pole. Nuclear and solar power are now big business as the black gold has been drying up, and the former requires some place to dump the nasty waste like, say, deep arctic waters while pretending to be shipping stuff from Scotland to Anchorage, for instance.
It is the discovery of a ship that registers on their radiation monitors that sends Anika down the rabbit hole, as what seems to be a simple case of a ship dumping nuclear fuel turns out to be a small piece of something larger. Large enough to shoot down a UN airship, and hound Anika and her friends and companions. However, the forces hounding Anika have no idea they have picked the wrong person to harass…
The author, in the dedication and in an afterword, dedicates the book to SF authors Karl Schroeder and Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s not hard to see why. The author wrote a short story with Schroeder in an ice-free arctic setting (not set in the same world though), and Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl is a seminal work in this short to medium term future SF setting that Buckell is playing in. The book is not an homage or a knock-off of the latter, though, even given the different locale.
Truly, the setting and speculation to what the geopolitical intrigues and socioeconomic environment of the “seventh ocean” might be like is one of the highlights of this book. Buckell, who grew up on the water in the Caribbean, takes obvious delight, care and interest in coming up with what a boomtown arctic might look like. While the novel might technically be thought of as a technothriller than SF, the novel is far enough in the future that it doesn’t feel like a pure thriller, but like proper SF. This is especially true once the reader (and Anika for that matter) fully understands and appreciates the stakes of the novel.
His community of Thule, which sits on what is left of the ice at the pole, gets by on the rule of cool. I’m not sure that it would develop in any logical world, as the inhabitants have to keep the ice from melting underneath them. The community and government of Thule reminds me a bit of The Cassini Division by Ken Macleod, and I wonder if Buckell got the idea for Thule’s crazy-quilt government system from New Mars. I do know he is interested in different governmental systems, and he gets to speculate on them here.
Buckell mostly keeps the focus on the arctic, except where it impinges on the characters’ backstory. Thus, we learn what Africa has been like over the last half century because Duncan is a Nigerian native, but we get what are sometimes only hints of what else has been going on in some places in the world. I have no doubt, given how carefully this future has been mapped out, that the author knows what has happened, and I would definitely be interested in a tour of other places on this Earth. What’s happening at the South Pole, for instance? And the book is filled with clever bits. Not just technology, or setting, but other things as well. For example, I caught Buckell cleverly tuckerizing an Age of Exploration explorer into his near future world. Things like that can already give an interesting near future universe even more flavor.
Another strength of the novel is the characters. This shouldn’t be an entire surprise to those who have read his work before. Buckell’s characters here have deep and interesting backstories that do multiple duty in fleshing out the world and its history as well as giving us insight into the character’s motivations. Anika Duncan has been through a lot in her life before the fateful day above the arctic, and as we learn her backstory, we find out just why she is so driven, and so relentless, even as it gets her into deeper and deeper trouble.
As appealing and interesting as the main character Anika is, it seems to me, though, that the character of Roo, whom Anika meets part way through the novel, is the author’s heart character. Or, at the very least, he is the character I liked the best, even more than Anika. Roo is from the Caribbean, has a love, affinity and skill for being a waterman, and has lived and lives a life of adventure and espionage. I would say that Roo is a Caribbean James Bond, but he is not the love interest for Anika. No, Anika’s interests lie elsewhere, and with her own gender.
Beyond Anika and Roo, the protagonists and antagonists get less screen time and love, although there are no true orphans here. I was not completely sold on the very mild Unresolved Sexual Tension between Anika and her love interest in the novel. It’s not exactly that its perfunctory, but rather that the author had too much other cool stuff to do. And, to be honest, Anika and Vy do have other things on their plate instead of engaging in a courtship. Another strength is hows the characters take notions of personal relationships and loyalties extremely seriously. It feels almost a bit of a throwback in a way, and now I wonder how the author would handle a Kingdom level fantasy revolving around the dynamics of a ducal court.
Given the espionage, intrigue and double dealing, there is plenty of action and adventure scenes to be found. Buckell deftly handles these with a fluency that will be no surprise to anyone familiar with his fiction. For example, early on Anika has gotten into an accident with a car that runs her borrowed motorcycle off the road. And note the bit of character background informing the action.
Now she was angry, not scared. She ripped her helmet off and looked at the car. It was a BMW, with tinted windows, that skidded to a stop down the highway.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” she shouted.
The driver got out. A muscular, tall, dark-haired man in a gray suit. He had a gun, which he raised over the roof of the car and pointed at her.
Anika bolted for the large rocks and scree, using them as a cover.
Three puffs of dirt and cracked rock exploded from the ground around her, near misses, as she zigged her way deeper into the natural maze of large rocks.
She was out here, very alone. And with no sidearm of her own.
That very large guy in the cheap suit was going to hunt her down. She was sure of that. She had a limp, she was tired, and he had the gun.
Anika kept moving, her mind racing, as she scrambled over loose rock and raced for bigger boulders to use as shields. She wasn’t going to be able to keep running much longer, though. She needed a weapon.
She picked up a fist-sized rock, square-ish, with some sharp points. But bashing his head in would require getting close. And with that gun the chances of doing that were low.
She pocketed the rock and doubled back, circling around him as quietly as she could.
Her pockets had nothing but the rock, Vy’s business card, and the phone. No one she could call would get here in time to save her.
Then she felt the rope key fob.
The paracord that made the fob was just six feet of standard parachute cord, thin and strong. It was knotted up into a compact little rectangle that took a few seconds to tug loose as she crouched her way from boulder to boulder.
A long time ago, a cousin of hers taught her to build slingshots to bring down birds on a dusty plain out in the countryside. For a Lagos girl, it was like a foreign land, a slice of her own country that seemed to leap out of the history books.
She never got the hang of making a sling, but she could wrap the rope into quick, half-remembered knots around the rock.
Now, with a crude mace built on the run, she found a spot where she’d make her stand. She walked back along her footprints in the dirt and gravel, letting them look as if they led off behind another large boulder, then she hid behind the other. She grunted as she jumped sideways toward it, trying not to give herself away. Then she waited.
It didn’t take long. She could see her attacker’s elongated shadow cautiously skirting toward her. “Tell you what,” the man shouted in a strong German accent. “It doesn’t have to be like this. Give me the data backup, and I’ll leave you be.”
Anika began twirling the rock. Softly at first, as she didn’t want it to make a sound yet. He was lying. If his first move was to try to run her down, he still wanted her dead even if she made the trade.
He stepped into a valley between two smaller knee-high rocks. He looked at her trail, and then stepped forward.
Anika gave the rock an extra burst of speed with all her upper body strength. The rope made a whooping sound, and she aimed it right at his head.
The book is a little weaker when it comes to the plotting. I wasn’t completely sold on how some events flow in the book; the last fifth of the book could have been handled somewhat better. Aside from that hiccup, the novel clicks along and is entertaining. Arctic Rising as a plot structure has a rabbit hole: the deeper you go the bigger you get sort of feel for it. The further Anika goes into the plot, the bigger the scope and the stakes become. It’s an effective technique that engages the reader, ramping up to the big conclusion. Writers can and should pay attention to some of the techniques and craft that Buckell employs here, and plain readers can just enjoy the results. I would love to see more from Buckell in this version of Earth’s future, and other versions too.