Monday, March 14, 2011


I decided to give Kim Stanley Robinson another chance, and picked up Antarctica. The title summarizes the novel's setting, focus, and starring character: the cold, icy, hostile continent at the south end of the planet. Like Red Mars, the story is told from the many viewpoints of assorted characters attempting to survive in a difficult environment. But the chapters alternate viewpoints, and the environment is not as foreign as Mars.

I enjoyed Antarctica. Much of the book is dedicated to describing and thinking about how to survive in the extreme cold -- and in this it reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. An entire side plot is devoted to scientists debating how to know things, how to turn hypotheses into facts, and how academe distorts this process into something political and personal -- a topic close to my heart and often on my mind. Some of this included academic jokes! On page 41, in a discussion between X and a "beaker" (scientist):
He looked to the side as he told X about this, almost as if embarrassed, although otherwise he showed no sign of any emotion at all; on the contrary he exhibited what X had come to think of as the pure beaker style, consisting of a Spocklike objectivity and deadened affect so severe that it was an open question whether he would have been able to pass a Turing test.
I have observed this in myself: spending all my time thinking about logic, or facts, or how to properly construct a complicated proof, the other parts of my brain hibernate and the "Spocklike" part takes over. I spent this weekend out in the world, interacting with non-university-affiliated people, and acting normal... or so I thought, until a stranger asked, "What do you do?" On hearing my reply, he said, "Oh, that makes sense -- because you have some pretty strong opinions about the rectangle method." So I guess I was emitting overly-strong math vibes, even in "normal" mode.

Like me, many of the characters of Antarctica spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking alone while [unlike me] trekking over miles and miles of glacier. Their thoughts are reflected in their actions, opinions, and entire worldview. One of them even reflects on this (p 129):
It is eerie sometimes to contemplate how much we create our own reality. The life of the mind is an imaginary relationship to a real situation; but then the real situation keeps happening, event after event, and many of those events are out of our control, but many others are the direct result of the imagination's take on things.
And thus is the "beaker" perspective explained: spend all your time thinking about science, and science becomes your reality. I wonder if the computer scientists who build programs that can pass the Turing test are good at passing the Turing test themselves.

As a last note on Antarctica, I was impressed at how many domain-specific words appeared. Is there somewhere that authors look up words by subject? (China MiƩville has the same superpower, as I'll mention whenever I get to blogging about his books.)

This post's theme words are
  • flense (trans.), "to flay, skin, or strip off" most often the skin of a seal or whale.
    "the paint had withstood the flensing of the wind so much better than the bare wood" (p 76)
  • bolide, "an especially luminous meteor; an exploding fireball."
    "Ross Island... is a singularity, a bolide of dense ch'i." (p 131)
  • katabatic, "of a wind: blowing down a slope or from an elevated region to a lower one, especially when caused by the effect of gravity on air cooled by the underlying ground."
    "Wind was the hard part of the cold. 'Yes, well, you know, the katabatic. Air is always falling off the polar cap just from its own weight, and we are right on the edge of the cap.'"
    (p 135)
The katabatic language describing glacier flow flensed the plot off the novel, revealing its innermost bolide of love for nature.

This post written like Arthur Clarke.

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