Whether you call it climate change or global warming, by the time Tobias Buckell’s long awaited new novel Arctic Rising gets started, the results are obvious: the Arctic ice cap has melted down, and the Northwest Passage has opened completely for shipping. Companies are rushing into areas like Greenland to take advantage of the abundant natural resources that are much more easily accessible now all that pesky ice is no longer in the way.
At the same time, nuclear electricity generation has become even more indispensable due to the dwindling fossil fuel reserves, and illegal dumping of its toxic waste is rampant. Anika Duncan is an airship pilot with the United Nations Polar Guard who monitors the Northwest shipping lanes for possible offenders. When she approaches a ship with suspiciously high radiation readings, it suddenly opens fire on her airship. After she is rescued, she tries to investigate the incident, but it looks like everyone is trying to cover up what happened — including even her superiors. This sets off a far-reaching plot that will involve the highest levels of power and affect the future of the Arctic and the Earth’s climate....
Don’t let the the synopsis on this novel’s cover turn you off. Actually, I strongly recommend not reading it at all, because for some reason it includes major plot elements that you’re much better off discovering by yourself, when they’re revealed late in the novel. (In other words: spoilers.) However, if you do happen to read it, the strong environmental message and names like “Gaia Corporation” may turn you off. It sounded a bit preachy even to me, and I’m as green as they come. I’m here to tell you: please don’t let it turn you off, because even though Arctic Rising does incorporate an environmental message, it’s also a well-written, exciting and action-packed novel that’s part science fiction thriller, part secret agent spy novel, and all fun. I’m glad I gave it a try despite the cover blurb, because it’s a great read.
The setting Tobias Buckell has created for Arctic Rising is, as it is so often in great science fiction, an extrapolation of current events. Right now, many countries are jostling for the rights to the previously unattractive polar region, because it’s clear that they are the next great untapped source of mining and drilling revenues. As Arctic Rising gets started, the area has been open for business for a while. As a result, it has become the 21st century’s version of the Gold Rush. On Baffin Island, where most of the early parts of the novel take place, multiple nationalities mix in an atmosphere of borderline lawlessness, all jockeying for position to make a profit. All those workers need food, drink and entertainment, and because the area is relatively young, the businesses providing them often operate on both sides of the law. Other parts of the vastly changed Arctic have turned into autonomous regions with unique government systems, allowing them to create their own laws.
In this setting, we meet Anika Duncan, the Nigerian-born UN pilot who accidentally gets sucked into a series of events that are more far-reaching than anything she bargained for. She’s an amazing character: a kick-ass female protagonist with a complex, hair-raising personal history who initially almost gets overwhelmed by the forces who are trying to cover up the evidence of her discovery. Later, in an unforgettable scene, she musters the resolve to fight back with a ferocious vengeance. Her “I bow to no man” attitude is amazing to witness and makes the novel a pleasure to read. Anika is helped in her quest by Vy, the Arctic region’s foremost supplier of legal and less-than-legal drugs, and Roo, a roaming Carribean special agent who uses his impressive catamaran as a base of operations for his spy missions. Character-wise, Anika would be enough to make Arctic Rising a winner, but combined with Vy and Roo there’s really a lot to cheer for here. I wouldn’t mind reading another novel set in the Arctic Circle with any of these three as the main character.
To make matters even more interesting, Arctic Rising takes an surprising turn along the way. The novel starts out like a fairly straightforward near-future environmental SF thriller, but as you continue reading, the references to spy/secret agent novels and movies become more and more apparent. There are a few scenes that are obvious winks to fans of Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum and John le Carré. After a while, it starts to feel like Tobias Buckell is using gadgets, characters, and plot devices that wouldn’t be amiss in something like a Bond movie, but rather than writing a standard spy-fi novel, he’s subverting them in ingenious ways. Even the spectacular conclusion of the story is, in a way, the mirror image of what you’d expect to see in a standard spy flick. Tobias Buckell tells a great SF story in Arctic Rising, but it also feels like he’s nudging reader while he’s playing with the tropes of another genre.
Arctic Rising achieves something that’s not as easy as it may sound: it delivers an environmental message without getting too preachy. It does this by telling its story from the point of view of a no-nonsense heroine who you can cheer for, adding some excellent supporting players, placing them in a unique setting, and then letting the spy-tale-with-a-twist plot do the rest. Secret agents, drug dealers, soldiers, strippers, governments, and big corporations all play a role in a story that balances environmental change against political advantage and big bucks. Arctic Rising is a tight novel that doesn’t waste any time getting up to speed and doesn’t slow down until the very end.
Stefan Raets reads and reviews fantasy and science fiction whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality. He would like a catamaran just like Roo’s.