“Great God! This is an awful place.” (by Christine Poulson)

Setting always features interestingly in Christine Poulson’s fiction, whether it is Cambridge and the surrounding Fens as depicted in her Cassandra James mystery series; Sweden, Hong Kong, and Devon in her novel Invisible; or the cathedral of her upcoming EQMM story “Faceless Killer” (March/April 2018). Her settings are almost always places she has visited, but in her novel Cold, Cold Heart, due to be released in the U.S. next month, she employs a setting that only research could provide access to: the Antarctic plateau. It’s evident from this post that research—and imagination!— has worked its magic for her in bringing the place to life.—Janet Hutchings

Martin Cruz Smith visited Moscow for only two weeks on a tourist visa before setting his best-seller, Gorky Park, there. Harry Keating went one better. He had never visited India when he began his series of Inspector Ghote novels set in Mumbai.

A few years ago I wrote a guest post for EQMM, “A Sense of Place,” in which I explained that I admired these writers and their chutzpah, but that I could never write about a place that I didn’t know. And now—having well and truly nailed my colours to the mast—I’ve gone and set the greater part of a novel somewhere that I’ve never visited, and never will.

Think of this: a place where each night lasts for months and so does each day. The mean annual temperature is −57 °C. It’s a place where money isn’t important because there’s nothing to buy. There are no children or old people or land mammals and only one species of insect. There are no trees or shrubs or flowers, no fresh fruit or vegetables or meat or milk or eggs.

These are only some of the things you’ll miss along with your family and friends when you fly in to spend the winter on a remote research base on the Antarctic plateau. This was the place I planned to send my series character, scientist Katie Flanagan.

There were however things that she’d have plenty of. Silence. Space. Ice. Time. There’d be a strange, bleak beauty to the landscape and on starry nights the breath-taking aurora australis, the Southern lights, would ripple across the sky. Another plus: she wouldn’t catch a cold or flu, because there’ll be no-one bringing in viruses from the outside world. But just as no-one would be coming in, nor would anyone be going out. Once the last plane left at the end of February the base would be completely cut-off until late October, because it would be cold enough to gelatinise engine oil. It is easier to get back from the International Space Station than from the Antarctic plateau in mid winter. Wintering over in Antarctica has much in common with long duration deep space missions, and serves as a valuable substitute for research into the physiological and psychological effects of extreme isolation and confinement.

Whatever happens on the base has to be dealt with on the base. The commander is sworn in as a magistrate before the winter begins. As for medical emergencies: There was a famous occasion in the early sixties when a Russian doctor on a Soviet base removed his own appendix under a local anesthetic while a driver and a meteorologist stood by, holding a mirror and handing him instruments.

On my fictional research base, only ten would winter over (a nod to Agatha Christie’s And Then There None). There would be a doctor, a couple of astronomers, a meteorologist, a chef (yes, they do have their own chef!), an electrical engineer, a plumbing and heating engineer, a mechanic, a computer and communications guy—and Katie as medical researcher.

And one of these would vanish from the base. . . .

Once I’d had this idea, how could I resist? There was no going back for me either. But a research trip was out of the question and not only because of the distance and the expense. No-one gets out to the most remote bases without having a very good reason and it is only a very select few who can spend the winter there.

Luckily those who have wintered over often feel compelled to record their experiences, and there is an abundance of memoirs and biographies going back to the early days of Antarctic exploration. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic, The Worst Journey in the World (1922) tells the story of an expedition to collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin, from which he and two others were lucky to return alive, and this is followed by an account of Scott’s ill-fated attempt to be first to reach the South Pole. It was Scott who wrote “Great God! This is an awful place” in the journal that was discovered with his frozen body and those of his companions.

Another stand-out account is Richard E. Byrd’s Alone (1958) which tells the story of his attempt in 1934 to spend the winter alone a hundred miles inland, and it is as gripping as any thriller. But of all the early polar explorers the one I came most to revere was Shackleton. He never lost a single man under his command. He was within a hundred miles of being the first to reach the South Pole and called a halt because there was not enough food to get his men back alive. “Better a living donkey than a dead lion,” he explained.

Coming up to the present day, Gavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins (2012), and Alex Gough’s Solid Sea and Southern Skies: Two Years in Antarctica (2010) are fascinating contemporary accounts. I immersed myself in these and in everything I could get hold of. I followed blog posts from Antarctica and watched documentaries and films, including the highly entertaining South of Sanity, a horror film scripted by, shot by, and starring a team wintering over one year at Rothera, a British Antarctic Survey base.

Yet informative as all this was, it wasn’t enough. I needed to talk to someone who had actually wintered over in Antarctica. Ideally this would be a young woman and a medic—someone like my character, Katie. What were the odds that I would find such a person living fifteen minutes drive from me? But that is exactly what happened. I found Rose, now working at a local hospital, via the blog she had written while she was in Antarctica. Over a couple of long lunches I learned about all the little traditions and rituals that make up life on the ice, about the danger posed by fire or loss of power, about what it was like to be on night duty, the only person awake on the silent base, and much, much more. Later, she read a draft of my novel (Cold, Cold Heart, published in the U.K. in November and due to be released in the U.S. in January) and picked up the things I hadn’t got quite right. It was a privilege and a pleasure to meet her.

Cherry-Garrard commented that “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” That has changed. These days there are few deaths in Antarctica. The bases are well-stocked and (relatively) comfortable, especially the newer ones. But still this remains one of the most hostile environments on the planet, where no aspect of survival can be taken for granted. It is also one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring and I have loved visiting it, if only in my imagination.

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6 Responses to “Great God! This is an awful place.” (by Christine Poulson)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    This is fascinating! I look forward to picking up the book itself!

  2. Robert Lopresti says:

    Wow, that’s quite a backstory to your story!

  3. “Think of this: a place where each night lasts for months and so does each day.” It’s set at your in-laws’ house? Very cool! Hahaha. Kidding. Awesome post. Can’t wait to read the book.

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