Today’s Place as Person contributer is Tim Jones. Poet, novelist, short story writer, winner of the Janet Frame Memorial award – there doesn’t seem to be anything Tim can’t do. Today, he’s giving Amundsen a run for his imaginative money…
Writing the White Page
I grew up on British stories of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century: of Scott the doomed and gentlemanly hero, Shackleton the plucky survivor, and Amundsen the Norwegian cad who had, by such underhand methods as planning, organisation and learning from others’ experience, denied Scott his rightful glory in the race for the South Pole.
This early exposure, despite the biases I only noticed later, opened up an imaginative space in my mind that has never closed. The Antarctic is a perfect setting for fiction, and especially for the type of fiction I started our writing and still write sometimes: fiction that strips out as many external elements as possible to focus on the nub of the story. The cold, the isolation, and the extreme conditions force people inwards to depend on themselves, on each other, and on the fragile layer of technology that supports them. People can work together in Antarctica, or they can fall apart; they can pass through danger and emerge as better people, or it can all go The Thing with dismaying speed.
I’m scarcely the only writer to notice this. The extensive nonfiction literature of Antarctic exploration is surrounded by a penumbra of Antarctic fiction and poetry, from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, through Ursula Le Guin’s sly deconstruction of the heroic-age adventurers in her classic short story “Sur” (in which a party of female adventurers discover the Pole first), to the title story in Tania Hershman’s recent short story collection The White Road and Other Stories.
For me, the highlight of Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is the sledging journey across the icecap undertaken by the two main characters, Estraven and Genly Ai: though the planet over which they make their painful progress is Gethen, not Earth, the journey clearly has its roots in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. (A great starting point if you want to check out Antarctica in fiction is Bill Manhire’s anthology The Wide White Page.)
Part of the attraction of Antarctica, for novelists just as much as explorers, has been that it has been a place of stasis on which narratives can easily be imposed. If you want to write a story about London, you need to face up to the complexity of London and the many ways it has been represented in fiction. If you want to write a story about Antarctica, all you need is a fresh fall of snow to wipe away others’ tracks. It’s post-apocalyptic fiction without needing to imagine an apocalypse.
Yet the geological evidence shows that Antarctica has not always been a static place: plants grew there once, and it appears that dinosaurs came south in the summer to graze on them. Now the outside world is imposing narratives on Antarctica again. Climate change is gnawing at the edges of the ice. Tourists visit in increasing numbers while oil companies and factory fishing fleets press ever deeper into sub-Antarctic waters. The wide white page is being scribbled on.
All the same, there is a corner of my mind where it’s always cold, though not as cold as it could be, because a blizzard is blowing. The whirling snow is so thick that it’s scarcely possible to see one’s companions on the great white plain. There are less of us now than when we started: the frozen bodies of those who have fallen by the wayside lie somewhere behind us. We plod on, heading for an arbitrary point on the map that our rivals may already have reached, our tracks soon abraded to nothing by the wind.
Tim Jones is a poet and author of both science fiction and literary fiction who was awarded the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2010. He lives in Wellington. His third poetry collection, Men Briefly Explained, was published in late 2011.
Among his other recent books are fantasy novel Anarya’s Secret (RedBrick, 2007), short story collection Transported (Vintage, 2008), and poetry anthology Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand (Interactive Press, 2009), co-edited with Mark Pirie. Voyagers won the “Best Collected Work” category in the 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
For more, see: Tim’s Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Tim-Jones/e/B004MGX7Z8/
Tim’s blog: http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.com