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Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell
Cover Artist: Getty Images
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319210
Date: 28 February 2012 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Interview with Tobias S. Buckell / Show Official Info /

Arctic Rising comes out of the gate fast with a Bondesque techno-thriller set in a near future where global warming has opened up the resource rich arctic and an oil hungry world is vying for control of its wealth.

Anika Duncan is a UN Polar Guard blimp pilot who monitors shipping through the nearly ice free Northwest Passage. She's taken on this chilly duty to get away from her own past as a child warrior in Nigeria, hanging out of a gunship dispensing discipline from above. That was a long way from where we find her, cruising along in an airship that had been bought by the UN from a tour company and fitted out with lots of long range cameras and sensors, among which the most important is a neutron scanner for detecting radioactive materials. Top of the threat list in this Eco-savvy thriller isn't weapons grade plutonium, but waste from nuclear reactors, which the world has turned to (along with lots of solar) for keeping the lights on.

In the future, as in the present, what to do with spent nuclear fuel is a real issue, and the cold deeps of the Arctic ocean turn out to be an ideal place, if not a legal one, for dumping.

So when Anika and her co-pilot sight an old tanker moving with more speed than prudence, they aim their scanner at it and watch it light up. Unfortunately, whatever is on the tanker is worth more to the crew than their reputation, and the next thing that gets lit up is a shoulder mounted rocket launcher. The Arctic ocean may be mostly ice free, but even in a fully inflated survival suit survival times are short and rescuers are few and far between.

Fortunately for Anika and Tom, they’re picked up by a fast freighter before they’re Popsicles, if only barely.

Then things get interesting.

Before the first few chapters are out, Anika will be shot down, shot at, run down, arrested, (nearly) blown up, strangled, and totally disavowed by her agency. Nobody asked her to take on the mission of finding out why everyone is willing to cover up the radioactive readings from the rogue tanker, and in fact, her Commander and the UNPG agents on the case strenuously advise her not to. A bit too strenuously, perhaps.

But when her co-pilot dies in the hospital after his recovery seemed a sure bet and people start taking steps to get her to join him, she gives up the notion that the polar region can offer her a life free of the violence of her childhood, and dives in to meet the challenge head on.

The only person she can turn to is a local drug lord and club owner named Vy, short for Violet, a gal who has a thing for our girl, an interest Anika might have been willing to reciprocate if it didn't mean ending her UNPG career. Suddenly that's not such a big problem, but the people trying to kill her and whatever mystery was hidden aboard the ship make this a bad time for romance in the frozen north. Anika does accept Vy's help in getting her to Thule, an artificial ice mass that's become a libertarian country, and where the leads to her questions seem to point.

As Anika digs into the mystery, she discovers a plot worthy of any Bond super-villian, but has to come to grips with the fact that it's not being done by an evil guy with a white cat and a scar, but by dot com money which thinks it's the right thing to do. But by virtue of persistence and pluck our girl winds up with the fate of the world in her hands.

The novel does switch between fast and violent and slow and talky, but that's not bad, since the author has a fair amount to talk about, and being able to explore ideas is part of science fiction's mandate.

What he has to say is all thoughtful stuff, and creates an interesting world that's rooted in a lot of current research on the Geo-political implications of climate change, sea-level rise, cheap Geo-engineering, and a world where non-state actors have as much impact as nations. Buckell astutely predicts that when the temperate zones shift, there will be winners and losers, and life will go on, but not perhaps as we know it.

If you lived through the eco-disaster fiction of the 1970s, reading stories like John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up or Philp Wylie's The End of the Dream, you were set for a much more dismal future than the one we live in.  That humanity could reach 2012 and not be living (for the most part) in armed camps fighting over the last grain of un-mutated wheat or breathing without gas masks seems out of step with those tales. Wylie, by the way, had already destroyed the Earth as part of the team that wrote When Worlds Collide in the 1930s, but that was by planetoid impact, a disaster for another day.

Buckell's post-oil future seems downright tame by comparison, sharing a world very close (and in fact, it may be a shared world) to the one created by Paolo Bacigalupi in The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker. On the one hand, I'm a fan of the notion that whatever happens humanity will adapt and most likely flourish, but on the other, suspect that they are underplaying the ecological impact of climate change.  We may very well be in for armed camps and water wars before the end of this century, not just a greener world where the US is no longer the dominant player and everyone uses computer controlled sailboats.

Tobias Buckell isn't the first person to write science fiction about climate change, nor the first to put his story in the arctic, but he may be the first to actively take on both spaces at the same time. Arctic Rising might just be the forerunner of a a whole new area for science fiction, which we'd probably call ice-punk…except that the ice is pretty much all gone. The question that he leaves us with at the books end, is not just what are we going to do about it, but who gets to decide.

And that’s a question that should keep you up nights.

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