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Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins Voyager, £11.99, 414 pages, trade paperback; published 2 February 1998. Mass market paperback,£6.99, 562 pages, published 6 September 1999)

Antarctica: a continent where mere survival is a major achievement. A continent where a high proportion of the long-stay residents are committed members of the Why Be Normal Club, where they talk about "being back in the world" as if Antarctica were really another world altogether.

It's a world where the last thing you want is for a bunch of terrorists to start making your life even harder...

Antarctica: a big, fat ­­ and very good ­­ novel of the near future that shapes up to be a thriller but is never quite comfortable with the form.

A novel that brings together issues that have recurred in Kim Stanley Robinson's work ­­ sustainability, social justice, the self-destructive logic of capitalism, and more ­­ in perhaps his most polemical, and evangelical, work to date.

And, inevitably, a novel crammed with the finely delineated characters and breathtaking sense of place we know to expect from this author. An immense amount of learning has gone into this book, but Robinson is that rare writer who can get away with backfill, explanation, theory. Indeed, one character's sole reason for existence ­­ the feng shui gurru, Ta Shu ­­ is to provide commentary, historical backfill and wry and pointed insight.

Antarctica is set in the early 21st Century, a world of global warming and Extreme Weather Events: "Torrential floods, blistering droughts, record highs and lows, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, assorted other superstorms; this year, like all the last several years, had seen everything."

And a group of ecoteurs, disenchanted with mainstream pressure group tactics, decide that direct action, or ecotage, is the only way to tackle the rising pressure to exploit the oil fields of Antarctica ­­ "the last pure wilderness on Earth".

Although Antarctica is a novel of issues, it's also a novel about people: people like tour guide Val Kenning and General Field Assistant "X" (for "Extra Large ... the size announced prominently on the front of his tan Carhartt overalls") ­­ both of whom are effectively stateless, people who can't feel at home back in the world and only in Antarctica find some kind of meaning to life. The third member of the triangle is Wade Norton, chief troubleshooter and Antarctica expert (which means he once wrote a hurried report on the region) for green liberal telesenator Phil Chase ­­ a politician who works remotely from the golf courses of the world.

Where Antarctica struggles is with its form: it's an action thriller that never quite pays out ­­ it reads as if the author was just a little more interested in the book's other concerns than he was in some of the more dramatic moments. It builds steadily, with characters in peril and rising tension ... and then the main dramatic peak takes place off-stage, with the resolution being carried out by a third party on a fourth, with our viewpoint characters mere unwitting victims (although they're central to the political and personal resolutions).

Despite this, Antarctica is a fine novel: informative, thought-provoking, moving and powerfully evocative. A novel that uses Antarctica as a microcosm for humankind's coming struggles for survival in the next century, for as one character points out, what's true in Antarctica is also true in the world ­­ Antarctica is not, after all, another planet, but very much part of Earth. Possible solutions reached in the course of this novel might just point the way for the rest of humankind in the future.

So yes, despite one or two flaws, this is a very impressive piece of work. And any American novel that contains approving references to Yes, Minister just has to be good!

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 10 October 1998