Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Review: Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell
As a geologist, as a concerned citizen, as a parent of 2 young children, I’m horrified by the (lack of) actions of my country regarding global warming. It’s happening, it’s real – it’s a problem that society needs to deal with. And as much of an issue as it is, it’s surprising how little it’s been explored in fiction, particularly near-future science fiction. Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell (BookDepository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) does just this in an intelligent, fun and action-packed fashion. It is near-future science fiction, it is a techno-thriller where the world has warmed, the seas have risen, the Northwest Passage is ice-free, and money and power are not far behind.
The thawing of the arctic seas has opened the lands and waters to economic exploitation. Lands once buried in ice are rich in minerals. The seas have some of the last remaining oil and gas in a world past peak oil. The rising power and influence of the ‘Arctic Tiger’ nations has a global shift in power in an increasing unstable world and new a melting pot of opportunity. And a ‘green corporation’ has risen as the most powerful corporation on earth with a goal of reversing the climate trend, a goal at odds with economic boom of polar waters.
Anika is a young UN pilot patrolling the polar waters. She and her partner find a positive reading for radiation on a passing ship. Their airship is shot down with a surface-to-air missile. Anika survives only to find herself at the center of a conspiracy quickly spiraling out of control.
Thrillers are generally good, fun reading, but not necessarily a place to expect the best writing. The writing is usually adequate, but it’s the story and the action that dominate. In Arctic Rising the story is action-packed with compelling characters and it’s got quality writing. This is a smart thriller – Buckell has done his research. And for a book that set in a time reacting to the consequences of global warming, it’s not the didactic global warming research you may think of. The United States military has done lots of contingency planning based on what could happen in the future due to global warming – Buckell takes these studies and uses them to create a convincing story through the eyes of middling UN pilot of a new socio-economic order of nations and corporations battling it out in the arctic. There are spies, there are mercenary soldiers, there is a criminal underworld. There’s torture, redemption, hopelessness, nano-technologic wonders and an errant nuclear bomb.
All of this is told from the viewpoint of Anika, an unlikely character to be at the heart of a thriller. Buckell could have stuck to the tried and true protagonist – a white American guy from the coast, or even a nice white American girl from the Midwest. Instead, Buckell looks to his own mixed routes as an immigrant from the Caribbean and chooses a female protragonist who is from Nigeria. The perspective of Anika as someone from the developing world and her interactions with an independent spy, Roo, from the Caribbean are a fascinating touch. The lingering effects of colonialism are present, the distrust of the big developed nations and their corporations is palatable and the repeated jabs to the presentation of international espionage from James Bond are hilariously sharp.
Equally refreshing is the inevitable love story subplot. As the story progresses, Anika develops a potential relationship with an underworld boss. Only as cliché as this could be, Buckell throws expectations a curve ball with Anika being a lesbian. The story could have easily been told with a traditional man-woman love story, but instead it’s a same-sex romance. And the best part – it’s just there. This isn’t some big statement and it doesn’t control some critical part of the thriller plot. The romance just happens to be same-sex, and it’s presented as being as normal as apple pie. I look forward to the day that such a romance is normal enough to not merit mention in a review like this.
And Anika is wonderfully strong protagonist. She’s tough and vulnerable. She’s conflicted about her feelings for Vy and what she owes a criminal boss who has seemingly selflessly helped her so much. She has an interesting past as a pilot and was even something of a child soldier. She’s a victim and a survivor. But she doesn’t lay down and take it, and she doesn’t rely on a rescuer – to the best of her ability she stands up to take as much control of the situation as possible.
OK, this is my soapbox paragraph, so if you’re not interested in how I see this sort of novel as important to getting the message out to the public about the reality of global warming, just move along to the next paragraph and be thankful that even though Buckell writes about a world changed due to global warming, he never actually gets on a soapbox (though plenty of interesting statements populate the novel). Arctic Rising is just the sort of fun, intelligent fiction that needs to permeate through pop culture to help educate society on the reality and potential of global warming. When people see enough of it, they will slowly come to accept it’s real and something needs to be done. We see the shift in climate, we see the last refuge of the polar bear and we hear the regret of the loss of a hometown to rising seas. And I love that ‘the other side’ that Buckell presents is the very real truth that there will be at least some economic opportunity that results from global warming (access to new minerals and other natural resources). That and the big bad environmental corporation and its vision of saving the world. This is the sort of alternative view that should be shown, rather than climate denialsts, which to me is like giving equal time to those that believe the earth is flat.
Tobias Buckell has written an intelligent, fun and even poignant thriller in Arctic Rising. It’s set around a likely future that should warn us of the consequences of global warming, yet most of its focus is on the new opportunities that arise and the Bond-like escapades of Anika as she tries to figure out who shot her out of the sky and why. This is what a thriller can be and I highly recommend it.