In the late 20th century, American readers went “Pole-crazy.” The fad may have been kicked off by Roland Huntford, whose “Scott and Amundsen” (1979) dragged a muckrake across the grave of revered British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Hoping to be the first man at the South Pole, Scott got there in 1912 only to find a Norwegian flag flying, planted a month earlier by his better-prepared rival Roald Amundsen. Huntford portrayed Scott as a bumbler whose Englishmen-know-best ineptitude doomed not only himself but also four companions, all of whom perished on the return trek. (One telling difference: While Amundsen and his crew rode on sleds pulled by dogs, Scott and company walked!) Other writers came to Scott’s defense; Huntford followed up in 1985 with a splendid, adulatory biography of another Scott rival, the Irishman Ernest Shackleton; and it wasn’t long before the Far North and its explorers were rediscovered, too.
It’s in this context that Cooper Gosling, the protagonist of Ashley Shelby’s enjoyable first novel, “South Pole Station,” applies for a fellowship to study in the Antarctic. Cooper belongs to a polar family — not polar by personal experience, but through books, notably Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World” (1922) and her own father’s storytelling. She and her brother David, she lovingly recalls, “used to pretend we were members of the Scott party, back when we were kids.” By the time the adult Cooper, a professional artist, reaches the coldest continent under the auspices of a National Science Foundation arts program, David’s long battle with schizophrenia has ended in suicide. To his sister, then, the South Pole is more than just the stuff bucket lists are made of.
Shelby, who has also written a nonfiction book about a disastrous North Dakota flood, has fun with the sort of people Antarctica attracts: misfits and eccentrics, who are stuck with one another for months at a time, almost entirely indoors and thousands of miles away from the nearest flowering of normal life. Among several vivid characters are an assistant chef who stoops to thievery in her campaign to become top cook; a representative of the NSF whose unflappability keeps most of his charges in line; and a handsome astrophysicist named Sal, who, when not conducting experiments to understand how the universe originated, acts as Cooper’s love interest. Because polar residence is inevitably transient, there’s a special term for Antarctic liaisons of convenience: “ice marriages.” Cooper and Sal, however, seem to be aiming for a frost-free relationship.
And then we have Dr. Frank Pavano, a climate-change denier whose presence brings out the worst in practically everyone at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. His polar peers — who bracket the word “scientist” with air quotes when applying it to Pavano — are not content to let him fail on his own; they nudge the process along by sabotaging his work. Because Cooper has been nice to him, Pavano invites her to help him with an outdoor experiment. She agrees, and the collaboration ends badly for them both, not least by incurring the wrath of climate-change naysayers in Congress who control the NSF’s purse strings.
There’s a lot going on in “South Pole Station,” and Shelby does better with some of its themes than with others. Cooper’s attempts to come to terms with her brother’s death are surprisingly unmoving, for example, while Sal’s pursuit of a theory as to how the world came into being makes for gripping reading. (More than once, in fact, I found myself wondering if Shelby hadn’t picked the wrong member of her romantic duo to build the novel around.)
But Shelby is very good on social interactions at the end of the earth, and “South Pole Station” crackles with energy whenever science takes center stage. She makes Sal’s abstruse theorizing both comprehensible and exciting, and excels at dramatizing the conflict between the “Beakers,” as the polar scientists are known, and the visiting congressional troglodytes. The novel might also give comfort to bucket-list worrywarts, who now have good reason to skip Antarctica. As Cooper notes on her first day there, “You think Antarctica is going to be the purest place in the world . . . and you get here and it’s like Akron.”
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By Ashley Shelby
Picador. 368 pp. $26