Documentary: Dena Seidel: Antarctic Edge: 70 South (U.S.A. 2015)
This is a documentary about marine life in the Southern Ocean and the work of scientists on ships and islands on the Antarctic coast. Underlying the narrative is the effect of global warming on all aspects of Antarctic life, from krill to penguins.
It’s a solid, straightforward documentary with lots of good visualizations of climate phenomena and human material about the lives of people who work in Antarctic research. It also demonstrates how the story of Antarctica has shifted during the 10+ years I’ve been interested in the subject. When I read my first Antarctic books, the image of the continent was of unchanging, eternal ice. Now it’s a story of massive transformations caused by humanity.
Film: Nikolay Khomeriki: The Icebreaker (Russia, 2016)
The Icebreaker is a movie about a Russian ship picking up scientists from Antarctica. As it leaves the continent, it becomes mired in the ice in the Ross Sea. Tensions arise as the captain is replaced by the Soviet government and the crew starts to get restless in the face of dwindling supplies.
It’s interesting to see a movie from the Soviet perspective on Antarctica, even if it deals with Soviet Antarctic programs only peripherally. The main action is with the people on the ship, stuck in Antarctic waters.
The movie is slow in the middle as life on the ship starts to get increasingly difficult, but it still has its interesting parts because of the setting and the time period.
Non-fiction: Alfred Lansing: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959)
Written by the American journalist Alfred Lansing and published in 1959, Endurance is an account of one of the most famous stories in the history of Antarctic exploration, the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. Shackleton attempted to traverse the Antarctic continent, but his ship was locked in ice before he got to shore, and was crushed. This forced him and his crew to move heavy small boats to the edge of the sea ice and then attempt to escape to safety in the stormiest seas in the world.
It’s a story told many times, but Lansing tells it very well, straightforwardly and simply, as if you were watching a movie of the events. Some of the quirkier details of the trip are missing, but Lansing has a good understanding of the minutiae and mistakes of daily expedition life. He interviewed surviving members of the expedition, giving his story a lot of human detail.
If you want to read an approachable and exciting account of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this is a good choice.
Fiction: Philip Benjamin: Quick, Before It Melts (Random House, 1964)
Philip Benjamin was a New York Times reporter who had been to Antarctica twice when he published the novel Quick, Before It Melts, later made into a movie. The title is a joke based on the idea that the Antarctic is eternal, and that being worried about it melting is funny. In this regard, the world has changed.
It’s a comedy novel about a reporter who goes to the Antarctic as a guest of the U.S. operation there. In factual terms, it’s very faithful, with a lot of fun little detail. The story follows the broad pattern of many non-fiction Antarctic books, with the stop in New Zealand, arriving in the Antarctic, adventures there, and ending when the protagonist leaves.
The reporter and his friend contrive to get their girlfriends visit Antarctica, at that point pretty much a men-only continent. A Soviet scientist defects to New Zealand. The story is a product of its time and the tone of the book is laddish, but sometimes it’s still clever in a lighthearted way.
Comic book: Sergio Salma: Penguins on Ice (ibooks, 2005)
Penguins on Ice is a collection of comic strips about Fred the Penguin and his compatriots. The jokes are based on simple ideas, such as how all penguins look the same.
The artist, Sergio Salma, is guilty of a sin so great that I can’t recommend this to any fan of Antarctica: He mixes the Arctic and the Antarctic. Penguins and Inuit. That’s just unforgivable. Even if some of the strips are funny.
Documentary: Mark Terry: The Antarctica Challenge (Canada, 2009)
The Antarctica Challenge is a Canadian documentary about what’s happening in Antarctica in terms of climate change. It explains the effects of the changing temperatures on animal life, glaciers, and the planet as a whole.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the documentary in terms of how Antarctica is usually represented is that it presents the environment in a state of change. The typical view of Antarctica is eternal, unchanging, but this time there are glaciers falling into the sea, life taking a foothold on previously ice-covered land, melting ice formations and other phenomena of an environment in flux.
The documentary is a good example of how in Antarctica, the issue of climate change becomes much less abstract and much more immediately tangible.
Non-fiction: Alastair Vere Nicoll: Riding the Ice Wind (I.B.Tauris 2010)
By now, books about moderns expeditions to Antarctica are a relatively big genre. Earlier examples on this blog can be found here, here and here. The challenge of this sort of book is that it’s always the same story.
1. Decide to go to Antarctica.
2. Engage in tedious fundraising.
3. Travel through the Antarctic continent, often in an attempt to do something new.
4. Gain important life lessons.
In Alastair Vere Nicoll’s book Riding the Ice Wind, there’s an added human element where Nicoll’s baby is going to be born roughly at the same time as he’s supposed to finish the expedition. Will he make it in time?
Nicoll is frustrating as a writer. He seems very honest and straightforward, and for much of the book, manhauling a sledge of provisions on Antarctica seems like hellish drudgery punctuated by moments of pure wonder. Yet Nicoll doesn’t really transcend the format of this type of a book, and in his more philosophical moments he’s very much on safe ground.
There’s one very interesting detail in the book. The route of Nicoll’s team goes through the South Pole and they stop at the American Amundsen-Scott station. They aren’t much impressed with it, and Nicoll mentions that the staff offhandedly says they’re using their scientific equipment to spy on the Chinese nuclear program by detecting the emissions that travel through the planet.
I’ve never read about this anywhere else, but it flies in the face of so much high-minded Antarctic rhetoric that I would very much like to know more.
Children’s book: William Grill: Shackleton’s Journey (2014, Flying Eye Books)
Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent is one of the most famous stories of early Antarctic exploration. His ship was crushed by ice, and he and his crew had to travel vast distances over ice and then on lifeboats to reach safety.
The children’s book Shackleton’s Journey tell the story with beautiful, evocative illustrations. The book is defined by style and grace, and detail that’s fun to peruse. A highlight is a list of names of dogs taken on the expedition.
The book presents the whole expedition as a dangerous journey undertaken by a bunch of hardy chaps. It’s a straight narrative of a story that in other hands, including Shackleton’s own, has acquired spiritual, transformative qualities enforced by the horrifying privation the men experienced on the ice.
Still, the book is a triumph. It’s practically designed to be explored together with a parent and a child, looking at all the things that characterized the Antarctic travel of that era.
Comic book: Francis Bergése: Mystery in Antarctica (Cinebook, 2015)
Buck Danny is an American ace pilot and the hero of a long-running series of French comic books. Mystery in Antarctica is Buck Danny no. 51. Like with any pop culture phenomenon, once it runs long enough it acquires its own logic, leading to shifts in tone that may seem strange to newcomers. As a character created in the Forties, Buck Danny is a blonde, square-jawed hero type with a funny sidekick. Yet his adventures take place in the modern world. This album was originally published in French in 2005.
Buck Danny is all about flying airplanes, so his enemies need jets too. Thus in Mystery in Antarctica, common pirates are somewhat implausibly equipped with serious military hardware. It’s especially funny because Buck Danny is all about realism in its depiction of fighter jets and US Navy protocols.
The story itself features a couple of classic Antarctic subjects. Nazi expeditions to the south and a Sea Shepards style environmental organization appear. The main focus is still on what I suspect is the central theme of all Buck Danny stories: Modern fighter airplanes and how cool they are.
Comic book: Alejandro Jodorowsky & Georges Bess: Anibal 5 (Humanoids Publishing, 2015)
This is a collection of two Anibal 5 albums, published in English by Humanoids. I read the first one in Finnish translation as a child, and its mix of softcore sex and scifi weirdness made a big impression on me. I was at an age where stories don’t really leave lasting impressions, but the scenes and images do. Now that I read it again, I recognized much of it, but the context was new.
Anibal 5 is a sex-addicted super-agent cyborg who fights and fucks and complains his way through various predicaments. The first album is definitely the better one. The second follows Anibal to Antarctica, where crazed feminists have created the Republic of Clitoria and must be stopped.
So no, this won’t win any prizes for progressive values.
The fist half of the comic has that Jodorowsky energy, but the second half is running on empty. Cringe-worthy stereotypes of man-hating feminists are not its only problem. Still, the idea of an Antarctic republic of women is not without peer. Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur imagines an early all-women Antarctic expedition, and books such as the novel The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and DJ Spooky’s The Book of Ice have explored similar territory.
Whale Wars season 4
Tv series: Whale Wars, season 4: U.S.A.
Whale Wars is a documentary tv series following the anti-whaling campaigns of the environmental group The Sea Shepherds. Season one to three were pretty amazing stuff, with dangerous confrontations in the Antarctic Sea.
In season four, it feels as if the series is starting to lose steam. The Sea Shepherds seem equipped better than ever, with three ships and seemingly more competent personnel. However, it’s hard to make things exciting when the whaling fleet eludes their grasp for so long.
Up until this point, Whale Wars has been a wonderful series, but this season can safely be skipped.
Documentary: Luc Jacquet: Ice and the Sky (France, 2015)
Luc Jacquet is the director of the movie March of the Penguins, so this is not his first time with an Antarctic subject. Ice and the Sky is a documentary about the career of the French glaciologist Claude Lorius and also an impassioned plea to do something about global warming.
The traditional image of Antarctica is as an eternal realm of ice and cold. Climate developments in recent decades have challenged that idea, and increasingly cast Antarctica more as a melting ice cube. Lorius has been at the center of this change in perception, and you can see that for him, global warming is not abstract at all. In Antarctica, it’s a concrete reality.
The movie starts in 1957 with the beginning of Lorius’ career in Antarctica, and it’s wonderful to see all the old footage from various French and international expeditions. Other classic Antarctic locations are the South Pole and the Russian Vostok base.
Although Ice and the Sky is definitely a “great man” movie, it’s wealth of footage and the scope of its subject make it a first-class Antarctic film. Lorius’ career spans global warming, atmospheric nuclear testing and the insignificance of humanity’s time on Earth, and it’s easy to be swept away with the wonder and the terror.
Comic book: Alain Paris et al: Throne of Ice (Humanoids, 2014)
Right now, Antarctica is an arid continent of ice, but it hasn’t always been so. A long, long time ago the location of the continent was different, and so was its climate. This is borne out in the fossil record, and greatly perplexed early explorers before the idea of continental drift was conceived.
Throne of Ice, a comic book written by the French novelist Alain Paris, employs this idea to tell a fantasy story of a kingdom on the Antarctic continent, before the coming of the ice. Its fate mirrors that of Atlantis, which was submerged before the Antarctic kingdom was frozen.
For much of the story, Throne of Ice is pretty un-Antarctic. It’s a kind of deflated Jodorowsky narrative of kings and betrayals, fights of succession and reversals of fortune. The interesting stuff is in the margins, the larger framework the comic draws from.
In addition to Antarctic pre-history, Throne of Ice references (albeit lightly) classic notions of polar occultism, such as the Piri Reis map and precursor races.
Non-fiction: Joscelyn Godwin: Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism and Nazi Survival (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996)
Arktos is a book about the idea of poles and polar regions in occultism. It goes through things like Nazi occult ideas related to the poles and the history of the concept of the polar shift. Sometimes its deep in the territory of Madam Blavatsky, and at other times it references Dungeons & Dragons.
From an Antarctic perspective, the book is quite unconcerned with the factual existence of the continent. It’s more of a history of ideas and concepts, written by a kind of half-believer.
For much of the book, Godwin’s own position on the subject matter is hard to pin down. He notes how the spritual nature of some of the Nazi officials destroys the idea that engaging with spiritual ideas necessarily leads to enlightenment and kindness. He criticizes many of his occult sources for being mentally unbalanced or otherwise unreliable.
At the end of the book, he attempts to position himself in the middle ground between two extreme positions: Science and the materialism of scientists, and the revelations of the individuals he terms “illuminates”. We need to listen to both to acquire a true understanding of the nature of phenomena such as polar shift!
Novel: Robert Masello: Blood and Ice (Bantam, 2009)
In one sense, Blood and Ice is a great Antarctic book. It’s clearly well researched, full of traditional modern Antarctic detail. Reading this, it feels like the author has gone through all the same books I have.
It’s the story of nature photographer Michael Wilde, who goes on assignment to an American base on Antarctica. While there, he discovers a slab of ice in which two British vampires have been preserved since the Crimean War. Indeed, Victorian England and Crimea are almost as important for the book as Antarctica.
Despite the vampire theme, the book proceeds in a very staid, detail-oriented fashion. The two lovers thawed from ice, the soldier Sinclair and the nurse Eleanor, are people, not monsters. The book’s idea of vampirism is almost like a medical condition, as befits its essentially rational worldview.
Despite its research and subject matter, there’s something in Blood and Ice that just fails to click. Near the end, the story is crumpled into less than the sum of its parts. The characters have been drawn according to the most rote, cliched understanding of humanity as seen in American popular entertainment.