Tobias S. Buckell
Tor ( $24.99, hc, February 2012, 304 pages)
Reviewed by Rich Horton
Tobias S. Buckell began his novelistic career with a very nice linked trio of books that fit fairly readily with what has been called “New Space Opera” – adventure stories set in space (or at least on distant planets), the main difference between “New” and “Old” Space Opera being a greater concern in the newer stuff for non-white characters, and perhaps a lesser belief in the primacy of humanity’s position in the Universe. His career hiccuped a bit in recent years, partly simply because he was changing course to a different sort of book, but more seriously because of some health issues. But his new novel, Arctic Rising, is now out, and it’s another cracker – as full of action and neat Sfnal ideas as his first three books, but set on Earth in the near future, and taking as its subject a central contemporary concern, global warming.
The protagonist of Arctic Rising, Anika Duncan, is an airship pilot for the United Nations Polar Guard. As the story opens she and her partner notice a radiation signature on a ship entering arctic waters, but when they investigate, the ship shoots them out of the sky, seemingly a rather disproportionate response. Her partner dies, and Anika is eager to find justice for him, but soon realizes that the investigation has hit a brick wall. When she makes noise, things get worse quickly, in classic thriller fashion: Anika’s home is bombed, she’s beaten up and only barely escapes being killed. She ends up on the run with a sort of “prostitute with a heart of gold” – that is, a brothel operator who has taken a shine to her. The one clue she has leads her to a ship run by the radical Green organization Gaia, who have a plan to stop global warming. But it turns out their tech can be used in multiple ways …
Well, I’m telling too much, I suppose. At the plot level Arctic Rising is pure thriller, complete with short sharp chapters, plenty of action, plenty of twists. And in that sense it is wholly satisfactory – it’s fun, the characters are involving, the action is perhaps a notch beyond plausible but probably more believable than the run of thrillers. (Though there are moments – suffice it to say, I can plausibly claim, in my day job, to almost be a “rocket scientist”, and Buckell portrays a missile launch here that certainly stretched my suspension of disbelief!) More importantly, however, at the idea level Arctic Rising is Science Fiction. And here it is even more satisfying. It’s a Global Warming story, no question about it, but with a refreshing lack of didacticism (which is not to say Buckell denies Global Warming in any sense). Part of the conflict here is between those who believe adapting to “the new normal” is the sanest course and those who wish to reverse the warming trend, and Buckell gives both sides their say and doesn’t insist on a right answer. Another aspect of the book is a look at possible ways to reverse Global Warming, such as Gaia Corporation’s new technology – these ideas are kind of neat on their own, and the book doesn’t shy from examining the real consequences of such ideas. Arctic Rising also examines near future social adaptations, from a glancing look at effects on international politics as well as specifically on the US, Africa, the Caribbean, etc.; to a more detailed look at some social experiments in the newly warm Arctic, especially in the new “Arctic Singapore” of Thule.
All in all this is a first-rate SF thriller. Buckell is a writer with a track record of producing traditionally-shaped SF (that is to say, Space Opera) with non-traditional ethnic characters – here he has moved to another traditional SF subject (the near future Earth) with equal effectiveness.
Rich Horton is an Associate Technical Fellow in Software for a major aerospace company in St. Louis, MO. He writes a regular column and book reviews for Black Gate, as well as a monthly column on short fiction for Locus and reviews for many other publications. He also edits an annual anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, for Prime Books. He maintains a website at www.sff.net/people/richard.horton, and can also be found on Live Journal.