Deborah Biancotti is the author of A Book of Endings and Bad Power, and co-author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Zeroes. She has been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award and the William L. Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Book. Her new novella, Waking in Winter, is available from PS Publishing in 2016. Deborah lives in Sydney, Australia. You can find her online at deborahbiancotti.com and on Twitter as @deborah_b.
“I fear for Vogel’s well being.”– From the voice-over introduction to A Cold Night’s Death, 1973.
John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (1938, Astounding Science-Fiction) pits humans against monster in a research station called Big Magnet. Though the names have been changed, this cold, dangerous setting is a key feature of the remakes and re-tellings ever since.
Campbell wasn’t the first, but he’s certainly one of the most influential storytellers to make use this of this icy, remote setting. An outpost where people seek knowledge and battle the unknowable, where they alternatively rely on each other and mistrust each other. Where they question each other’s humanity.
I have a deep love for these kinds of stories. Campbell’s wasn’t the first I came across, and nor was the John Carpenter film adaptation, The Thing (1982). In fact, my introduction to this realm of storytelling was a little-known American telemovie called A Cold Night’s Death that aired on ABC one Tuesday night in January 1973.
In this movie, scientists played by Robert Culp and Eli Wallace personify intuition vs. reason as they battle the unknown-and each other-in a creepy research station called Tower Mountain. The cruel research is designed to test the endurance of chimps in the cold, and there’s a passing reference to its usefulness for space travel. But apart from that brief swipe at science, the movie is a satisfying psychological thriller about two people (and several chimps) under stress.
In one particular moment, Culp has battled his way back inside the research station after becoming (mysteriously) locked out. He’s so covered in ice that he looks monstrous. An abominable snowman who’s figured out where the real terror lies and is too frozen or far gone to do anything but submit to his fate.
In Carpenter’s movie there’s a similar scene that elucidates the threat of the outside world. MacReady-frost in his beard, his eyes pinched red from cold-has been locked out on purpose when he becomes the focus of suspicion. Never one to submit, he holds a stick of dynamite in his shivering hands. “Anyone messes with me, the whole camp goes.”
Outside, the wind howls. Reminding us that even if some of the men survive the dynamite blast, they will surely die of exposure without the protective shell of the camp.
When writing about my own icy, remote research station, I got to wondering what ice meant in fiction. If water symbolizes the unknown, the subconscious, and intuition, perhaps ice is a blockage in those systems. Perhaps ice is a symbol of knowledge, rather than intuition.
Perhaps, conversely, ice is a symbol of concealment. Snow can hide and dissemble. It can look soft and striking, but it can be deadly. The cold can kill, the wind and brightness can blind. The ground is hidden under a gentle, almost shapeless covering that could give way any minute to crevices and fissures. You can fall to your death in snow if you don’t know the terrain. You can collapse in a blizzard and be rapidly hidden by frost.
It struck me this is an ironic place to search for knowledge. But a perfect place to set first contact stories. Where better to meet and seek understanding of aliens and other supernatural or metaphysical beings than this trickster place?
This discord-between the search for knowledge and the threat of the unknown and unpredictable-is one of the key reasons these fictional, distant research stations are so intriguing.
Water can also mean purification, change, adaptability and re-birth. And although I wasn’t thinking specifically of symbolism when I started to write about my own story, some sense of it accompanied me. Subconsciously, as it were. In fact, it was really the synthesis of two ideas that kicked off my journey.
The first seed was planted when I discovered that the Antarctic is technically a desert. Annually, it receives less than ten inches of rain or snow. This struck me as a fascinating and jarring contradiction (though hardier meteorologists will scoff at my surprise).
The second idea was something I’d been kicking around for longer, about creation mythology. There’s a lot of variety in creation myths. There are birth myths, some of which involve a cosmic egg from which the world hatched (some Hindu and African cultures). Or stories where the world was created from the fruitful union of Father Sky and Mother Earth (Ancient Maoris and Polynesians, for example).
Others-such as the ancient Egyptian and some Native American cultures-believe there was chaos, or a primitive underworld, some kind of primordial soup or a vast expanse of water. A flood.
And then there is the belief that no act of creation can begin without violence. The beginning can only come from a bloody and brutal destruction. One Hindu belief, for example, purports that the world arose from the dismemberment of Purusha, a being who was sacrificed by the gods. In Mesopotamia, the god Marduk cut the goddess Tiamat into two parts, making heaven and earth.
Sounds kind of horrible, doesn’t it?
In response to these discoveries, I placed my research station on a planet so remote that humans are only beginning to colonize it. In the story, I never name the planet, because I want it to be part of what was unknowable about that place.
Like all human-made buildings in extreme conditions, my fictional Base Station Un is a fragile place, where any breach of the walls or stutter of the generator is cause for alarm. It is a delicate ecosystem of human dependencies. People live in each other’s pockets. Resentfully. With no place else to go.
Which is the other reason these icy, remote research stations work so brilliantly in fiction. Because polar regions are physically and emotionally difficult places to survive. We have to insulate (literally and metaphorically). We have to manage fuel and power, and string lifelines between buildings. There is a stark contrast between the beautiful, apparently serene outer world and the cramped, awkward and uncomfortable inner spaces we inhabit. These smaller spaces induce a persistent claustrophobia and suspicion. Dislocation and detachment is often the result. We need to rely on each other in such extreme conditions. But can we?
In my story, all the humans are searching for something. Some scientific knowledge, or some safe haven where they can escape the lives they fled on Earth. My protagonist, Fuyuko Muir, has taken a job as Otter pilot to assuage her guilt about a crime from her past. But Muir carries her own prison with her.
I gave her the name Fuyuko (‘child of water’) and Muir (‘sea) because I felt like something was stuck inside her. She’d come to this icy desert with a frozen sea inside. She’d stumbled into the middle of some cosmic creation or destruction on this icy, remote planet and now she finds herself surrounded by other people trying to exit their own lives, too. And also named-all of them-after water.
In Muir’s world, there’s a dangerous mystery trapped in the ice. The most compelling danger, though, comes not from what is out there, but what lies trapped in the human hearts and minds of Base Station Un.
Sometimes it’s the monster that kills us. But sometimes it’s our reaction to the monster that we should be afraid of.