The Frozen Crucible: Science Fiction and the Adversity of Northern Exploration

From Verne’s endless underground caverns and deep sea depths to the cold silence of research stations orbiting distant stars...

Exploration of the unknown is a motif that drives much of science fiction, from Verne’s endless underground caverns and deep sea depths to the cold silence of research stations orbiting distant stars. Tales of isolation and hardship are as old as the genre itself, with their roots in histories and mythologies that flourished long before science fiction had a name. Some of the most influential of these have been the scientific records, captain’s logs, and journals of early northern explorers. Evidence from these journeys has been guarded as state secrets, revered for the hardship and heroism chronicled within, and burned into the collective memory of a generation as Europe’s hundred-year obsession with arctic exploration came to terms with the loss and destruction that walked hand in hand with the search for a Northwest Passage.

Robert Edwin Peary, John Ross, Knud Rasmussen and Robert McClure’s accounts of their travels were at one time among the most coveted secular texts in Europe. In a tone that is detached and scientific by today’s standards, they recorded stories of unerringly brave but unknowingly ill-prepared men venturing into territories dramatically alien to the European experience: expanses of empty ice so bright they could blind you in a matter of hours, a wasteland devoid of food and paved with undrinkable water, a landscape that was passable one minute and a maze of icy projections the next, and a four month darkness that drove men, their dogs and even the local populations to insanity. Their journals told of walking a thin edge between stoic bravery and madness. Of watching turpentine dripping from the beams of ships as they were squeezed by ice floes. Of men losing sight of their ship in a snowstorm and freezing to death — only to be found, once the snow had cleared, frozen in agony mere metres from shelter.

Of, invariably, the immense relief that finally accompanied the first glimpse of sun after a long arctic winter without light.

The themes of exploration and hardship in these narratives have been touchstones for early science fiction and have since become deeply influential to the genre and to popular culture. Many authors have borrowed the style, among them Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose 10-volume Planetary Series details a journey across planets and moons, using the scarce life and tenacious societies encountered throughout the solar system as a basis for both social commentary and scientific speculation. Works like Weinbaum’s imitate the structure of journals and captains logs, leave their alien environments barren save for a few struggling instances of life, and focus on the incredible character of the men and women who survived and thrived in extreme environments. They idolized the selfless explorer-captain as a totemic hero — a persona familiar to fans of Star Trek in the character of Jean-Luc Picard — and used the exploration of the unknown both as a way to fascinate audiences and to find narrative pathways into complex social, psychological and cultural debates.

The dramatic tales that made exploration famous were sifted out from the stories of experienced seamen and from the evidence they documented while voyaging. The logs of arctic explorations are not a particularly riveting literary form. They are almost entirely composed of the records of daily rituals: of wind, pressure, and temperature measurements; compass bearings and land sightings; and routine inventories. The monotony of these observations make the exceptions all the more dramatic — a few short words, candidly noted, but humming between the lines with the acute tension and emotion felt by the writer. In one example from 1835, a group of British ships found themselves caught by closing winter ice and trapped in Baffin Bay. They had neither the food nor the clothing to see them through the winter. Over the four months they spent slowly drifting southward in the ice, most of the crew died of exposure, starvation and illness. The largely impassive record of death and struggle in the ships’ logs is dotted with poignant moments where cracks in the scientific tone reveal glimpses of the man behind the pen. On November 11, 1835, an officer from the Viewport wrote: “Weather Milder. A great many fish have been playing around the ship today, amongst which we observed Unicorns [Narwhals] and white whales. We are now to the southward of Cape Searle, a sublime object. The moon has been in sight all day — it never sets — a thing I never saw before.” Seldom do such restrained words communicate so much.

When reading these journals it is impossible for me not to to be reminded of fictional works that share the tone of detached observation, faltering only when the pressure becomes too much to bear. In one example, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris recounts unexplainable phenomena in the environs of a planet-cum-semi-sentient being. Where William Edward Parry described formations of sea ice, Lem describes the curious symmetries of an alien landscape. Where Parry describes the equipment and accommodations of his research vessel, Lem details the inventories of an interplanetary team of scientists. Long reports of geography and weather, the unending glare of sun on snow, scarce hints of life, and the cognitive disorientation that accompanies isolation in an alien environment permeate both texts. The occasional breaches of protocol that reveal the personal stories behind Parry’s reports are a device for Lem, a tool that he uses to drive a sense of disorientation as Solaris descends into a waking dream where the line between memories and realities blurs in a landscape that materializes desires and fears at will.

Journals of northern voyages often hint at the incredible depth of the isolation and hostility felt in arctic extremes, accompanied by a reverence for the juxtaposition of beauty and danger in the environment. These are the attempts of respected and dignified officers to express the psychological effects of their journey: for some religious, for others inspiring, and for more than a few, a source of deep psychological trauma. They are an attempt to explain — and to understand — how intelligent, respected men would be driven to return to such a perilous and strained existence. Knud Rasmussen, a great Danish explorer and anthropologist, nearly died on a dramatic 1500 mile journey undertaken to disprove a claim of the American Explorer Robert Peary. The treacherous passage did not discourage him — and was to be the first of five massive record-setting voyages by dogsled across the ice and tundra. Few men would return to such a pursuit, but a small handful did, driven by a hunger that could not be satiated elsewhere.

Confounded by the brilliance and chromatic monotony of the arctic, travellers sometimes found themselves unable to explain what they observed. They were baffled by the survival of rodents, the brilliance and clarity of the mirages of cliffs and glaciers, and the sudden and dramatic freezing and thawing of channels in the ice. The simple lack of reference points sometimes creates powerful illusions of scale. A Swedish explorer once sketched and described a craggy headland in the distance with two oddly symmetrical valley glaciers before realizing he was staring at a walrus. A crew member on McClure’s Investigator scribed into the logs that he had watched a polar bear spread huge white wings and take off into the distance — unaware that he was actually looking at a snowy owl. In one passage from Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes a similar phenomenon: “The white-out … commonly occurs under an overcast sky or in a fog bank, where light travelling in one direction at a certain angle has the same flux, or strength, as light travelling in any other angle in any other direction. There are no shadows. Space has no depth. There is no horizon. On foot you stumble about in a missed-stair-step fashion. On a fast-moving snow machine your heart nearly stops when the bottom of the world disappears.”

Even without the stark, just-the-facts form of a captain’s log, the theme of survival against tremendous odds is still uniquely powerful. In a demonstration of his literary talent, Theodore Sturgeon wrapped hardship, danger, and transformation into a few thousand words in “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (currently available online at Strange Horizons). In his characteristically underspoken and rhythmic tone he describes a massive joy in surviving adversity — of reaching an end regardless of the consequences: “you were able to feel a triumph — a triumph because you were alive and knew that much without thinking at all.” Both Sturgeon and those who sought the Northwest Passage to no avail connect survival — in the darkest, coldest nights and the most lethal conditions — to a triumphalism that still resonates today. It is an element found not only in science fiction but also in centuries of storytelling and draws on themes reaching back into the earliest mythologies, to a recurring motif that the American mythologist Joseph Campbell dubbed “the road of trials,” in which a series of hardships temper the hero and catalyze his resolve.

This is an idea we cling to tightly: that what does not kill us makes us stronger, that enduring the training of Yoda will make us unbeatable, that escaping the pillage and destruction of our families, cities or homeworlds will steel our determination. That somehow, there is a deep affirmation of life intrinsic to hardship and suffering. Arctic explorers hinted that over the course of a long and difficult voyage, the traveller becomes something more than he was before — and the resourcefulness and skill of the people they encountered affirmed this. In 1925, long after northern development had been transmuted from exotic heroism to corporate quotidian, the then-famous Inuit Shaman Igjugarjuk told a group of visitors from the south that “the only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering.” Many years earlier the explorer Knud Rasmussen was taught an Inuit word that points to a more nuanced understanding of the same idea. Among a vocabulary with a multitude of words for variations of fear, apprehension and struggle, the Central Inuit also understood nuannaarpoq: the extravagant pleasure of being alive in adversity.

Nuannaarpoq drove explorers to great lengths — petitioning their governments, selling their houses for funds to equip their men — all for a chance to make deeper and more dangerous penetrations into the unknown. It is the same “joy” that we imagine fills Jean-Luc Picard’s eyes in the face of Borg assimilation, or Dr. Dave Bowman as he discovers HAL’s dark intentions and disregard for life (2001: A Space Odyssey), and of the android Roy Batty in the last few minutes of his predetermined life, bathed in rain, on a desolate and ruined rooftop (Blade Runner). Each of them holds on to the fact that pain, hardship and struggle cannot overwhelm our ability to see and appreciate beauty, and to the thought that through these difficulties we prove to ourselves and to each other that we are undeniably alive.

The idea that tales of hardship and survival in an extreme, hostile environment are uniquely fantastic or alien could not be more wrong. These are stories that have been told and retold for millennia — and that are relived time and time again by brave men and women finding hope and willpower in the most adverse of conditions. They are stories that belong to the researchers, anthropologists, naval officers and seamen who struggled to find both renown and personal meaning in the often suicidal quest for a Northwest Passage, or to erect a cairn closer to the North Pole than their compatriots. While the tales of The Thing or Moon or any of the thousands of tales that play in this theme often set themselves in the distant reaches of fiction, their roots invariably grow much closer to home.

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