The continent of Antarctica was only discovered two centuries ago, even if it had long been theorized. It’s a place shrouded in mystery with no human history and no permanent residents. It’s a land of superlatives: the coldest, the windiest, the driest continent.
It is a grand scientific experiment, a habitat for animals, with spectacular icescapes luring tourists and scientists alike. And it’s somewhere that exists in the popular imagination in a multitude of ways, often contradictory and, it must be said, frequently confused with the Arctic.
There’s a long tradition of gothic and horror stories set in, and inspired by, Antarctica. There are heroic adventure tales from the early 20th century onwards, thrillers and adventure tales, science fiction novels, and crime and detective stories set on this inscrutable continent. Joining me to talk about all these stories and more is Prof Elizabeth Leane.
Professor Elizabeth Leane is Associate Dean and Research Professor of English at the Univeristy of Tasmania. She studies the passion for literature that the hostile continent of Antarctica evokes, and the power in turn of literature to influence what we think and feel about Antarctica. Her work highlights the need for a presence of the humanities as well as the sciences in Antarctic research.
She is the author of numerous studies of Antarctica, including South Pole (2016) and Antarctica in Fiction (2012) and is the co-editor of Considering Animals (2011), Imagining Antarctica (2011), Anthropocene Antarctica (2019) and Performing Ice (2020).
You can read her full bio here
Works Mentioned and Referenced
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Edgar Allan Poe: “MS. Found in a Bottle”
Edgar Allan Poe: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
H.P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness
John W. Campbell: “Who Goes There?”
The Thing, dir. John Carpenter
Jules Verne: An Antarctic Mystery
William Clarke Russell: The Frozen Pirate
Paul McCauley: Austral
Ilija Tojanow: The Lamentations of Zeno (Eis Tau)
Rebecca Hunt: Everland
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I’m Conor Reid with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
how you experience Antarctica really depends on the way that you get there.
So my first voyage was with an icebreaker from from Hobart, and it takes about five or six days to get down to, to Casey station from Hobart, that’s our closest station. So it’s not instantaneous, and you don’t encounter Antartica, all at once. So first of all, you see your first iceberg that’s incredibly exciting. And then you realize that was completely tiny, compared to the ones that will, you’ll encounter later, and then you see the sea ice and penguins and the seals. And by the time you get to the actual continent, you’re already immersed in this very different landscape.
And that really contrasts with the experience of flying down, which I’ve also done. I flew down, for example, from New Zealand to, to Scott Base. And to do that you get on a Globemaster or Hercules airplane, and you’re completely enclosed for hours, maybe, you know, five hours, maybe eight hours, depending on what kind of plane, and you get out on this startlingly white ice plane in all directions. And it’s a real shock. So I think that’s dislocating in a way that it’s not if you arrive by ship, which is so much slower.
But either way, it’s a completely enthralling place. And the main emotion that I remember being there is a kind of childlike glee. I’m not a person who excites easily but in Antarctica, I am, you know, I don’t particularly like the cold, but I want to be out on the ship’s deck and outside all the time. Because the icescape is just so spectacular, and just want to maximize every moment. So, you know, the rumors are true, it really is an astounding place. And one that I feel incredibly lucky to have visited
So my name’s Elizabeth Leane, I tend to go by Ellie. And I work at the University of Tasmania. In Well, I work in the School of Humanities. I’m also the Associate Dean of research in the College of Arts, law and education. And for a long time now, I’ve been working on the literature of Antarctica and the cultural history of Antarctica
Antarctica is a place I, for one, know very little about. And I don’t think I’m alone.
A continent that was only discovered two centuries ago, even if it had long been theorized; a place shrouded in mystery with no human history, no permanent residents. It’s a land of superlatives – the coldest, the windiest, the driest continent.
It’s a grand scientific experiment, a vast habitat for animals, with spectacular icescapes luring tourists and scientists alike. And, it’s somewhere that exists in the popular imagination in a multitude of ways, often in very confused ways, especially when it comes the Arctic and the Antarctic – you know, all those polar bears and penguins hanging out together.
It’s also a place of contradictions – a serene, beautiful, white landscape, on one hand, but also somewhere with a long tradition of gothic and horror stories set in, and inspired by, the continent. Alongside this, there are the heroic adventure tales, from the early 20th century onwards, thrillers and adventure tales, science fiction novels, and crime and detective stories set in this enigmatic landscape.
Which is why I wanted to talk to Dr Elizabeth Leane about lots of these stories. First, though, I wanted to understand how Antarctica works.
About ten or twelve years ago I went to Ushuaia, in Argentina, the capital of Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost city in the world. It’s very close to Antarctica and I remember thinking two things at the time: One, how amazing would it be to go to Antarctica (unfortunately it was wellll beyond my backpacker budget). And two, how do you go to Antarctica? Who lives there? Are there different enclaves claimed by different countries? Basically, how does Antarctica work?
Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, there are two main ways to go to Antarctica, it’s interesting, it’s the place that you have to go to, you have to occupy certain identities to go to Antarctica. And one of them, of course, is a tourist, that’s probably the most straightforward way. And that means that you have to travel with a commercial operator, almost always. Last season, there was about 70,000 people who visited Antarctica. In that way, of course, this season, there’s going to be almost none because of COVID. But that means that you have a very curated experience of the continent. Generally speaking, you go on a certain itinerary, you walk in roped off areas, you don’t tend to visit bases, you look at animals and so forth.
And the second big category that you can go in is as a worker, and in that case, you have to go via a national program. And I use the word worker to cover a whole range of different occupations. So scientists are the most obvious people who travel to Antarctica, but actually, there’s more support personnel in the tradespeople: cooks, cleaners, field offices, doctors all go to Antarctica to support the scientific presence. And then you get people like politicians making visits. And you get people like artists and writers on residencies, but they are all essentially going in some kind of professional capacity with a national program.
So unless you’re going as a tourist, you’re going to have to convince a national program that you need to go to Antarctica – if you’re not a scientist or support worker then you might be able to get onto a residency programme as an artist or writer or in another creative field. But, as you can imagine, these are not exactly easy programmes to get onto.
If you do, though, you’ll most likely stay on a base, one of a small number of permanent structures in Antarctica. About 40 countries have bases of varying sizes across the continent, mostly along the coastal areas. (Ireland, alas, does not have one).
If you go somewhere like Casey station, that’s Australia station, it’s not very big, it looks like a small mining camp, really, lots of shipping containers and fairly functional looking buildings. If you go somewhere like Ross Island, or into Scott base there, that’s also the location of McMurdo Station, which is the biggest US station and they’ll have about 1000 people there in summer. So it’s like a little settlement, really, you know, it’s got some well it’s not got restaurants, but it’s got, you know, a big eating place, it’s got a chapel, you know, you can wander around it, you can wander from Scott Base to McMurdo. So it’s got more of a sense there of people, you know, of actual settlement. But a lot of the bases are very isolated and quite small. So it really is a place unlike any other in that sense.
The comparisons between some of these bases and, say, moon bases, or other similar habitations from science fact and fiction, seem pretty clear. And NASA and others have used Antarctica as stand-ins for Mars, looking at how people survive in confined, extreme, isolated spaces. But, of course, you can’t simply lump all these different bases and different parts of Antarctica into one whole.
It really depends where you are, and this is something that I try and get across in my research is that it’s not, you know, it’s a continent that’s big. And, you know, although it’s not as heterogeneous as a lot of other continents, it still has quite significant differences. So for example, early this year, I went down to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is sometimes called the Riviera of Antarctica, because it’s, it’s much more northern. And it’s much milder. So I was staying on King George Island, and the temperature never got below freezing would have been about what it was, what it is for you now, in Ireland. In, I was in down at Ross Island, which is a lot further south, in February, a couple years ago. You know, it’s temperatures of minus 10 minus 20. But if you go to somewhere like the pole, then you’re looking at an average temperature around minus 50.
It can get as low as minus 80 in the south pole. This is kind of unimaginably cold. Like not just uncomfortable, but painfully cold, where any exposed skin will get frostbite in minutes. You can see these great videos line, in about -40 degree, where if you throw a cup of boiling water into the air it just instantly turns to snow. That’s pretty cold.
So, we know all this now – about what it’s like at the south pole, about what the continent looks like, it’s geography and ecology and lots more. But this is all very recent, mostly really from the early 20th century onwards. The first recorded sighting of the continent was actually exactly 200 years ago, in 1820.
But long before this, the idea of a southern continent was alive in myths and stories.
there have been human communities living in the far southern parts of the world for a long time in places like Tierra del Fuego, in New Zealand, here in Tasmania, and those communities did have myths relating to that part of the world because, of course, Those far southern regions experience the far south through the weather, you know, through the wind and through the cold and through the ocean, through the migrating animals and through the southern lights. So those connections do enter into their cultures, but they were oral cultures. So, we have, you know, less remaining from, from those myths
In the northern hemisphere the Antarctic had been theorised for a very long time, going back to classical times. It was the ant-arctic, the opposite of the arctic, and was assumed to be cold like its northern counterpart. But no one really had any clue what a southern continent might look like, it’s size or geography, whether there might be lots of islands or a sea maybe
And then over the years, a lot of myths become attached to the poles themselves, both the north and the south. And you get things like whirlpools, thought to be at the poles or big magnetic mountains or holes, where you can access the Earth’s interior. And that speaks to the whole Hollow Earth tradition. And I think the governing idea here is that people wanted there to be some kind of spectacular marker at the pole, it shouldn’t just be a blank.
Yeah, I mean fair enough, there should be something spectacular at the north and south poles. It’s only fair if you manage to get all the way there.
And they thought that poles, the poles were places that really lured you in, that kind of drew you even against your will, the way that a magnet might or a whirlpool, or that the poles offered some kind of passage to another existence, you know, whether that was the interior of the earth or, or to add a space or to just some kind of other mode of being so you get all these myths circulating
Hollow earth novels, incidentally, is the topic of a bonus episode that you can get by signing up to support the show. Just throwing that out there.
So Antarctica started showing up in fiction – all sorts of science fiction, adventure tales and travel narratives. But especially in gothic and horror:
Critics sometimes talk about there being a sub genre of the polar Gothic or the Antarctic Gothic. And it goes right back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s the Ancient Mariner, not popular fiction, but certainly taking advantage of the craze, the popular craze for the Gothic at the time. And Coleridge sets that poem with the first part of that poem really deliberately in Antarctica,
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
he’d never traveled outside of Britain, when he wrote it, the Arctic would have seemed a lot more obvious setting if you wanted a polar setting. But clearly, he wanted a place that was remote, he wanted a place that seemed sort of inverted.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
And so people in the Northern Hemisphere’s sense that the far south is kind of on the the bottom of the Earth has this sense of, of being a kind of underworld, I suppose. For people in the north. So you get that poem in, I think, what is it 1798. And then, Mary Shelley draws on that poem in Frankenstein, which is set in the Arctic, but you get that kind of Gothic cross polar connection going, and the next, the next big name is Edgar Allan Poe, who said a short story there involving a whirlpool at the South Pole, and set his only novel The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in Antarctica as well.
So this was the 19th century. As you move into the early 20th century you get the science fiction and weird tales of the pulp magazines. Maybe there is some sort of ancient alien horror buried in the frozen Antarctic depths? H.P. Lovecraft’s great story At The Mountains of Madness, from 1936, looks at this. In typical Lovecraftian fashion, there are unspeakably ancient and unfathomable beings frozen in the ice, who should never be awakened from their slumber.
And an even more influential example is a short story that came out a couple of years later [
, in the same magazine] called Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, who’s a very well known pulp science fiction writer and editor. And in that story, a group of American expedition is dig up and defrost an alien, they find this frozen alien spacecraft, take out the frozen alien, which they think is dead. But when it defrosts in their base, it comes alive unbeknownst to them. And one by one, it attacks them and impersonates them perfectly. So that there are these aliens walking around the base alongside humans without anybody knowing who is who. And you get this sense of paranoia and suspicion and claustrophobia in that base. And then that becomes the basis for a series of films, including The Thing from from 1992, and you have this very strong horror tradition coming out.
And then you have the adventure novels, the tales of heroic explorers, both real and imaginary. The early 20th century was the so-called “Heroic Age” of polar exploration, with explorers vying to be the first to reach both the north and south poles. Their exploits were covered in newspapers, scientific journals, and in both fictional and non-fictional form across the world. In an Irish context, many people will be familiar with Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean (I’m pretty sure I had a Tom Crean beer at some point recently). So both of these men were involved in a number of Antarctic expeditions, beginning in 1901.
Multiple expeditions set out in the 1900s until, in March 1912, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen arrived in Tasmania and announced to the world that he had reached the south pole three months previously – the first person ever to reach the geographic south pole. He had beaten the British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, by just 5 weeks. Highlighting the huge dangers involved in these expeditions, Scott and his party all died on their return journey from the pole.
And these explorers were shaping, and shaped by, the popular fiction of the time
Antarctica is being discovered at the same time, the popular fiction is really coming into its own, you know, with the cheap printing and so forth, in the late 19th century, and so the explorers that go to Antarctica, around the turn of the 20th century, have been brought up on this diet of colonial adventure fiction. So in a sense, the fiction is shaping, in a way, the interactions with the continents, and the explorers take down big libraries of books, which include popular fiction, and some of them like Scott’s first expedition actually took that Jules Verne novel Antarctic Mystery with it. So they’re reading Antarctic fiction in Antarctica, as they’re exploring it for the first time.
So you have this strong colonial context here, these are explorers claiming and naming new lands for the empires they represented. And they were filling in the last truly blank spaces on the map. I mean there was, at this point, very little else in the world that hadn’t been mapped and catalogued by the various geographic societies and other scientific bodies.
Antarctica was also one of the last places you could vaguely plausibly set a lost world story – I’ve talked about lost world tales before on this show.
you know, where the protagonist goes and encounters a world or a people that seemingly have been lost in time. So you get, you get dinosaurs, you get Neanderthals, you get Ancient Greeks, you get medieval Europeans, all encountered in Antarctica, they’ve been living there cut off from everybody, for centuries.
I’m going to take a quick break to tell you about two things:[AD BREAK ]
Back to the show
So Antarctica is geographically cut off from the rest of the world, there’s a spatial disconnect. But there are also all sorts of things going on with time. First off, there are all those frozen people or aliens, a type of cryogenic time travel. There are lots of pulp tales of frozen Neanderthals and lost races of people reawakening in modern times.
there’s a novel that really brought this home to me, which has got the improbable, improbable title of the Frozen Pirate, which was by William Clark Russell who, I think, wrote nautical horrors, I haven’t read any others I have to admit. It comes from the late 19th century. And so what happens in that novel, is it there’s a shipwreck and the protagonist finds himself on an iceberg and encased in that iceberg is an 18th century pirate ship with frozen pirates in it. And he starts a fire and one of them defrosts and of course comes to life. And from that pirate’s perspective, you know, half a century has passed by without him realizing so he is effectively a time traveler
And then you’ve got the fact that our bodies get very confused by the passage of time in Antarctica
not so much on the on the coast. But once you go into the interior, you know, you get a day being stretched out to, at the pole a year, you know, where you get, essentially, you know, six months of not in six months of day, although it’s got Twilight in between so it’s not quite that stark, but you get that very odd sense of time. And it’s light when it should be dark and it’s dark when it should be light. A lot of popular fiction gets the details wrong around around that. But thematically I think what it suggests is a disorientation in time.
…And it is a bit of a strange feeling. And it you know, when you go to Antarctica, you’re in danger of I mean, people are in danger of just not getting any sleep, because the body’s telling them to stay up. It’s such an exciting experience, and people just tend to, to get far too little sleep
Something that many novelists have drawn on to create tension for thrillers or, particularly, for crime and detective stories.
There are, today, lots of writers using Antarctica in their fiction, some of whom have visited or perhaps been part of a residency. Many others just research the location like they would any other. Writing about the continent does present certain unusual challenges though:
But there are still real limitations to that. Because there’s no real settlements in Antarctica. No families. I mean, there are there are bases that do host families, but in general, there aren’t any, any families. There’s no old people, there’s no young people, there’s no generations. So there’s just certain things that you can’t write, you know, there’s, you can’t write bildungsromans, you can’t write family sagas, you’re kind of fixed to a certain plotline, because it’s always a journey, you always have to travel to get to Antarctica, you always have to return. And that really circumscribes I think, the kinds of stories that can be told
There are plenty of eco-thrillers set in Antarctica, and the importance of the continent in our study and understanding of climate change is key part of this. Science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction are common too.
one that I’m thinking of here that I found interesting was a novel by Paul McCauley the science fiction writer called Austral that was set on the Antarctic Peninsula, but a warmer Antarctic Peninsula that’s been colonized. And I felt like – the novel was a little uneven – but it had a really interesting story world and imagined that world in really interesting ways. You get… that tourist experience is certainly something that people are writing about more. And when I’m thinking about here, it’s not popular fiction, but Ilija Trojanow’s Lamenttations of Zeno, which was originally published in German, was called Eis Tau in German. But that is a novel to offer in the perspective of an Antarctic tourist guide, who’s also a glaciologist, and is devastated by what’s happening to the ice and takes really radical action to protect it. So you get a lot of those future looking novels thinking about what might happen to Antarctica, down the track, even if you’ve always had science fiction set there.
Or, if you want to stick to the gothic:
a really good one that I read from a few years ago. It’s called Everland, by Rebecca Hunt. And if you’re looking for a contemporary Gothic novel about Antarctica, that’s the one I’d recommend. It’s incredibly creepy, while also dealing with that exploration, history, so some of the themes are the same. But I think the challenges are new and the writers are stepping up to them
Ultimately there’s no such thing really as Antarctic fiction – firstly, there’s so much fiction about the continent, in so many different genres, that there’s very little to connect it all. And in any case, it’s a continent, it’s huge, there are so many ways to experience it, so many ideas to take from it and to express. But there are certain aspects that emerge again and again – it’s cold, for the most part, it’s isolated and set apart from the rest of the world; it is, by all accounts, an utterly spectacular place like no other. And there’s always a journey, you have to go there and, crucially, you have to return. Nobody lives in Antarctica permanently. And those journeys have certainly made for some fascinating works of fiction.
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening. Most people put out Christmas episodes at this time of year, I have one about a place that’s very snowy so, you know, close enough.
Special thanks to my wonderful guest this week, Dr Elizabeth Leane – I’ve put links to her and her work on the website, she has written so much about Antarctica so check it out. The links are at wttepodcast.com. There you’ll also find full transcripts of this episodes, a list of all the books mentioned – there were quite a few this week – links, pictures, and lots more
You can follow the show @words to that effect on Instagram and facebook, and I’m on twitter @cedreid.
There will also be a Victorian ghost story bonus episode for supporters of the show – head over to Patreon.com/wtte to find out more. This is the third time I’ve done this now so I’m officially calling it an annual Christmas tradition.
So happy Christmas, take care, and thanks for listening this year. I’ll be back in 2021, I’m taking an extra week off so it’ll be mid January.
See you soon.