Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sci-fi novel more skeleton screenplay

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THIS commercial sci-fi thriller has a premise that should interest ecologically minded Canadians.

It is set in the near future, when global warming has melted almost all of the ice in the Arctic Circle. The female protagonist, Anika, is a "Polar Guard" pilot whose aircraft is shot down by a ship carrying an unauthorized nuclear weapon.

She becomes involved in an underground search for the smugglers, the nuke and the reasons behind its presence.

Thrillers like these can be quick, suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining.

And then there's another type: A skeleton screenplay masquerading as a novel, zipping along through all-too-familiar plot points: evil Russians (check); untimely death of a tough friend with a heart of gold (check); double agents (check); open ending with the obvious intention of writing a sequel (sigh).

Guess which type Arctic Rising is?

American author Tobias S. Buckell's last novel was written for the Halo series, based on the popular video game, and got mixed reviews.

In Arctic Rising, Canadians will get a kick out of our country's status as one of the "Arctic Tigers," national superpowers with access to the circle's newly exposed resources and trade routes.

However, the consequences of the ice melt are extremely complex and Buckell struggles to explore them all.

His most elaborate creation is a new polar country, Thule, established on the shrinking Arctic Circle. Inhabitants use refrigeration cables to ensure the remaining ice stays frozen (yes, you read that correctly).

Thule is made up of a number of different "demesnes," all governed according to different systems (including a benevolent dictatorship, and a participatory budget democracy with volunteer municipal forces -- at one point Anika finds herself in a strip club that is run as a worker co-operative).

Sound complicated? It is. Throughout the book, Buckell tries to cover too much, and ends up covering too little, so the plot feels like a number of potentially great stories flung together without enough detail or thought.

Buckell's characters do have potential; the women in particular manage to escape stereotypical thriller-treatment. Anika is strong, if flawed. Brief descriptions of her difficult childhood in Nigeria are interesting, and readers care enough to root for her in a series of knockdown fights.

We also learn, several chapters in, that she's a lesbian, and her romantic relationship is handled casually, without being exploited for shock value.

By the novel's climax, however, things have become very scattered. A seemingly endless parade of soldiers, government workers and environmental activists appear and disappear, crammed between a ludicrous number of location and plot changes.

The final showdown has a few false starts, mainly because as more information is revealed, Anika suddenly decides (spoiler alert!) to switch sides. In real life there are grey areas when it comes to good and evil, but Buckell, whose prose is thoroughly pedestrian, is not up to the task of dealing with such nuances.

In the end, readers do not know what Buckell thinks we should do about global warming, corporate-government relations, or any of the novel's other issues. More important, they will not care enough to try to find out.

Leezann Freed-Lobchuk is an intern for the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.

Arctic Rising

By Tobias S. Buckell

Tom Doherty Associates, 304 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2012 J9

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