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The Ice by Stephen J. Pyne (University of Iowa : $37.50; 428 pp., illustrated : Overflight by Charles Neider (New Horizon: $14.95; 218 pp.)

January 18, 1987|Michael Parfit | Parfit is the author of "South Light, a Journey to the Last Continent "(Macmillan)

Antarctica is like space: a baffling place, only slightly understood. People who go there are jolted by the experience; many have trouble sorting it into their previous conceptions of life and the planet. Writers first struggle to describe the eeriness, the excitement, and the grandeur of a landscape that is so different that most metaphors are meaningless; and then they try to place it within the literature of a civilization whose entire world has always been green. Their efforts often fail.

But Antarctica is slowly becoming a part of our world, politically, scientifically, and, at last, in literature. These two books are part of that process. The first, "The Ice," is no less than a landmark of Antarctic literature. The second, "Overflight" is a novel that is promoted as landmark but isn't. Yet the two books together remind once again how difficult it is to assimilate a place that is truly new into our set habits of mind.

The importance of "The Ice" is its grand ambition. It is the first work to attempt to find for Antarctica a place in the culture of the world.

Although Stephen Pyne spent three months in Antarctica, this is not a personal description. The subtitle "A Journey to Antarctica" is accurate as a metaphor only; there are no travels described in this book. This is, instead, a long essay, intent on generalization. Its chapters alternate between descriptions of kinds of ice--sea ice, ice shelves, glaciers, the ice plateau--and histories of human interaction with the continent--exploration, literature, earth science, and geopolitics.

Other recent books--"A Pole Apart", by Philip Quigg, and "The Seventh Continent" by Deborah Shapley--have covered similar raw material. But this is different. The other books are documentary, placing the facts where they fall; Pyne seeks, sorts, arranges, and asserts, always finding meanings. He places the continent in a context of the modernist movement, of the many goals of the age of exploration, of the dramatic development of tectonic plate theory, of the new age of international politics. The Ice, he says, capitalizing it, is an earth emblem for our times.

Pyne's writing is elaborate and often unnecessarily complex. For instance, in describing the way loose rocks on the surface are arranged into patterns by the steady influence of frost, Pyne writes: "Detrital surfaces are organized into patterned ground, regolith counterparts to the atmospheric optics that geometrize the sky." Pyne's writing can be poetic in its imagery: the highest area of the great ice plateau is "the cold quiescent eye of the polar vortex." And he has a strong sense of rhythm and rhetoric. But most of the time he seems trapped in an over-ripe jungle of words; if he would hew about him for a while, using as a machete a basic guide to simplicity and clarity like Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," people would be able to see him better.

But his theme has power. It rolls through the brush like a tank. What does this place, The Ice, mean to us folk of the green landscape? Pyne asks (though never that clearly). His answer is, excuse me, chilling. The Ice is an intellectual sink, a white emptiness, "the sum of its negations," "less interesting for what it contains than for what it lacks," "a geography of nihilism," "a geographic solipsism." In his section on literature Pyne describes some of the monsters and strange societies that fictional characters found in Antarctica, but none could be more spooky than his own image of a landscape of nothingness that drains even the aurora from the sky. Pyne's earth emblem is a blank white mask into which the world stares, and sees reflections.

Perhaps it is natural for a man whose thought and language are ornate to be discomfited by a place whose surface, at least, appears so starkly simple. Whatever its personal origin, however, Pyne's view is compelling, and is strongly supported by the patterns of geography and history that he draws here in a manner a bit like the relentless arranging of stones by frost. "The Ice" is a powerful and important book. Anyone who cares about the nature of our globe and its landscape and civilization should read it.

But one should not be convinced by it. Personally, I disagree. It reminds me of asking a scientist at McMurdo Station how she could work in what I described as a barren landscape. "Barren?" she chided me gently. "I can see that you're not a microbiologist." Too, I have been endlessly enthralled by the very places about which Pyne says "the scene palls and ultimately disappoints."

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