Monday, 4 July 2016

The Ice

(This is going to be an imperfect melange of a review but it's late and I'm tired and a little drunk, its been a while since I read this thing and I want this writing out the door.)

'The Ice' is a book about Antarctica by Stephen Pyne. He mainly writes about fire. This time, for one book, he did ice. Earth, Air and Water have been covered by others in depth.

Its a book about nothing. Or more precisely, its a book about what it means that there is nothing. It's a classical book about modernism, like the worlds best review of a blank page.

The Ice, referred to like that, with capital letters inside the text of the book itself, is the ice on Antarctica pressing it down so deep into the substance of the earth that if it melted the continent would bounce back and the planet would become a bit more of a ball.

We start at the edge and work in. Pyne has a neat eye for literary and scientific organisation. In 'Fire on the Rim' he turned decades at the Grand Canyon into one long year of fire, with the years of his life splintered throughout but the organic nature of the environment reasserted and retained. The Ice has a simpler schema, which is fitting since the core of the book and the core of the ice are both about insane, overwhelming, annihilating simplicity.

A chapter on bergs, which are like dying jewels in which the hidden history of the ice is briefly exhibited like a travelling show before decaying into nothing, then one on the shelf where bergs calve off, then the glaciers, more like vast rivers of splintered ice running out to the sea, then the fountain heads of the glaciers, and then beyond them, the core at the still centre of the pole, a plain so flat and dry that the ice accumulates through delicate crystallization, building a continent through licks of paint until the layered weight forms its own frozen geology. A place haloed by storms and aurora, that winds flow from but rarely to.

The chapters on ice lay out its nature and synthesise its scholarship into near-poetry. I showed you some of this in Pynes section or light, I'll re-quote a little here;

"Refraction inspires other, more geometric effects; halos - 22-degree, 46-degree, and circumscribed; arcs - Parry, Lowitz, upper-tangent, circumzenithal, circumhorizontal, superlateral, infralateral, and contact, a parahelia - colloquially known as sun dogs or false suns (or paraselenae, if the light source is the Moon). ... A spectacular, abstract art results: vertical streaks of light, sun pillars; concentrations of light into subsuns; partial arcs and circles, parhelic circles, subsun dogs (22-degree subparahelia), subparahelic circles, 120-degree parahelia and paraselenae; and, in a direction opposite the light source, anthelic arcs, anthelic pillars, and anthelions. Thus a single atmospheric display may combine several patterns of reflection and refraction into a compendium of light geometry."



1. Aurora people. Ether-Men, living beings made from interactions between the earths magnetic field and the wind from the sun, descend, having fallen briefly in love with a party member. 
2. Sun Dogs + Moon Dogs fighting over who best occupies the sky, they ask a PC to settle things. 
3. A caravan of the dead journeying to be translated into light, a standing army stripped to skeletons of refractive bone-pale light.
4. Radical refugee light elementals, finally released from defining the shape and colour of things, attack the PCs in a rage, crying that they refuse to be messengers of the material world.
5. Sparks flicker between the glimmering lights of low-orbit Lichjammers and skeletons begin to rain from the sky.
6. A radial palace of the Light Elementals is besieged by Aurora-men, the battle hinges on a single point and both sides appeal to the PC's for aid, offering them dutchies in the sky if they respond.


Writers tend to either euphony or exactness. Having both at once is rare, both combined with knowledge, and the sheer stubborn borderline-stupidity required to fuck about writing a book about Antarctica for years, is near-unique. We can put Pyne up on a narrow pedestal with Rebecca West as someone who wrote a supremely brilliant and fucking long books about a subject that almost no-one is interested in.

Like Meiville we advance by sandwich, creeping to a pale end. He was heading for a whale, interspersing his old-testament adventure story with layers of pure and almost-abstract knowledge. Pyne does a similar thing. In between these chapters purely about Ice are sandwiched others with more prosaic information. In fact pretty much *all* the prosaic information. Wildlife, exploration, Geology and Politics all show up, art and literature too (Lovecraft gets a mention), the fact that you can probably reference everything that anyone has written about Antarctica in one book tells you its own story. The renaissance has taken its time getting there, slowly closing in with ships and sleds.

It's almost impossible to get to the Antarctic coast with anything less than an industrial level of technology, and its probably impossible to get to the pole with anything less than an near-modern level of technology, or at least a near-modern understanding of the world. Because, simply, there is nothing there but light and ice. It is the end of nature and the cosmic anteroom and pre-modern societies have their own ways of dealing with those things. Only we can go there and only we need to go there. We go there becasue its the end of the earth and until we do we don't know what the earth is, or what we are. It is a boundary to us and we must test it out to know ourselves.

Its a new continent, and not in a columbian exchange plague-and-slaughter there's-people-here-already way. Antarctica is one of the few places on earth that Europeans can claim reasonably to absolutely, totally, full-on discovered on their own, and they seem to have done a lot of their best work there. (Not even the Polynesians seem to have got there, and if they did they probably died.)

It's in Antarctica that we see the last breath of imperialism freezing on its lips and becoming something almost noble in the process. With no-one to dominate or kill, with nothing to steal or own, with nothing to conquer except the environment and the self, the drive and will of the explorers of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration was cut loose from most of what poisoned it. They were pure heroes. Almost pointless heroes. Horribly horribly tragic in a clean and simple way that few other explorers could manage. The flies of humanity banging against the invisible plate glass of the cosmos. At their best they found a way to transmute nationalism and driving ambition and pride into a calm, reasonable empathy, often dying in the process.



"The Worst Journey is a massive book, dense with information and anglo-saxon monosyllables. The vocabulary, and the temperament it conveys, has more in common with the lyric poetry of A.E. Houseman than with the literature of naturalism, with which the story might have been instinctively allied. The incredible concentation of detail, the lengthy verbatim passages lifted from diaries, and the steady attention to chronological narrative all belong with the realist fiction of Arnold Bennet. A principal purpose of the book, after all, is documentary. "It was like this," Cherry-Garrard says again and again, then proceeds to list temperatures, food supplied, the character of snow surfaces - a litany of detail which, by its sheer bulk, evokes a mood. The author's assessment of the expedition is similarly stated in direct language, filled with tangibles like the quantity of oil, the character and quantity of rations, storm patterns, and the perils of sledge dogs.

But Cherry-Garrard was not by training or temperament a scientist. It was he who urged the Tennyson inscription from "Ulysses" for Scotts memorial cross. His book has its share of lyric poems, and while it never loses its dedication to Science, Nature and Art, its purpose is a moral interrogation. Ultimately, the book becomes a disquisition on character, less a report on what Antarctica is than how one responds to it. By that standard Scott, the expedition, and Cherry-Garrard measure up. Antarctica reduces people, no less than scenery, to their essences and Cherry-Garrard conveys this sense with a vastly simplified vocabulary and syntax. In the tenor and point of view of the book, there is little of the modernist syndrome. The author of the Worst Journey refuses to disguise the horror of the multiple tragedies of the expedition: he just wants to see these tragedies turned to good effects. There is nothing heroic, in the romantic sense, about the winter journey that Cherry-Garrard made with Wilson and Bowers to collect a penguin egg from Cape Crozier. But there is nothing false or ridiculous about it either. There is no irony to the voice, nothing of the mockery of lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. The expedition wanted to live up to the memories of its ancestors, not lampoon them."

Ending each chapter on ice is a sub-chapter on the esthetics of the ice. Simply, what it looks like, what it feels like to be there, and what it might mean that it feels like that.

It's very important that these sections be there. Pyne is writing about meaning and using the throbbing absence of the ice to pin-prick the image of what meaning is and how we make it up. Art, and feeling and perception are parts of this



1. An invisible archipelago of friction bubbles beneath the sheet, villages there farming pockets of green cryobacteria in the hazy twilight.
2. Access to 'the inside of the world' - actually an alternate past/future or a far distant dyson sphere. linked to this one via parallel causality, an inside-out world from the inside-out verse.
3. Buried geography, a saline riverway following buried valleys and compression crack whirlpools.
4. Caves in the crust of the sunken continent. Pale people coming out of the dark to explode the fracture zones between the sheet and the earth.
5. An ice mine where thousands of frozen skeletons toil for a dead Emperor to reach scattered particles of ancient magic, relics of parallel causality shifts that could reveal the true nature of the cosmos.
6. Iron fragments of dead gods embedded in ellipsis in the ice.



Pynes conception of the Ice as a modernist space is deep. It's a place you almost can't look at honesty in a representative way (although the existence of Pynes book is a kind of a disapproval or strike against a large part of what's in the book, he is not a modernist, he believes in facts and beauty and real things and we do not find out about his moods or the contents of his soul except for those parts that the existence, organisation and contents of the book imply).

The light eats art. The deeper in you get, the less there is to see. No horizon, no perspective, no depth, no shadows, no living things, no objects, no highlights and eventually not even any feelings to leak out and stain the page, those too numbed by the emptiness and the cold. The Ice isn't even abstract, it isn't even anything.

"Glacial action has shaped or scratched rock surfaces into Earthly pictographs. Detrial surfaces are organized into patterened ground, regolith counterparts to the atmospheric optics that geometrize the sky. When the sea ice that fronts the mouth of the Taylor Valley breaks up, it does so in polygonal blocks. Ice and soil pattern the ground; ice and water pattern the sea; ice and light pattern the sky. Cirque glaciers drip down the valley sides like white and blue stucco, and valley glaciers spill into the valley floor like daubs of ice on a rack palette. Lakes splotch blues, whites and greens across a brown and yellow drabness. High translucent clouds screen the sky: fluffy cumuli, pumped with moisture from the open Ross Sea, pile up above peak and glacier. Angular mountains mingle with soft clouds, tangible rock with abstract snow.

It is an impressive display of near-alpine esthetics. It's colours, warmth, intricite perspectives, and endless shapes make this environment instinctively attractive. yet the scene palls and ultimatrely dissapoints.....The reductionism of The Ice is incomplete and indirect; it does not lead to a new kind of scene so much as to an impoverishment of more familiar landscapes."



Kingdoms cascading like winds out of the cold core, storms of polities. Predatory kingdoms  reaving over the ice as wave fronts of hungry potentiality, building themselves frantically in the blink of an eye, feeding off whatever has meaning to you, whatever drives you, whatever gives you joy, whatever makes you afraid. Meaning-seeking kingdoms of white crystals pulling meaning out of your mind. Empires that drain the self, leaving meaningless people behind.



Antarctica stands in the annals of global politics as an example of how reasonably nation states can interact when there is no strong reason to kill each other and nothing much to do except investigate the cosmos.

"Ice placers are a stunningly rich source of information about The Ice and about the solar system. Antarctica has not only significantly swollen the population of collected meteorites and in some instances added uniquely to it, but it has preserved those specimens in a relatively unaltered state. Among the rare specimens are a diamond-bearing iron meteorite, in which the diamond results from impact shock waves; ureilites, achondrites in which small diamonds have formed by collisions in space; diogenities, achondrites in which minute inclusions contain liquid water and water vapour; and the enigmatic shergottites and carbonaceous chondrites. Shergottites are achondrites that are anomalous in their petrology, complex chemistry of rare-earth elements and youthful age. Two from Antarctica (which doubled the worlds population) indicate an origin about 1.8 billion years from laval parent rock, altered by impact, which preserves a distinct boundary between two petrological zones and included trapped rare gasses that intimate a martian origin. Other achondrites possibly have a lunar origin. The carbonaceous chondrites, rich in carbon and water, have a more ancient lineage. Some are filled with high-temperature inclusions of anomalous composition, suggesting an origin outside the solar system altogether. these rocky shards date from the genesis of the galaxy."

No-one has yet been willing to put forth the staggering effort that would be required to actually actively kill people in Antarctica. There, in the absence of projected lethal force, the world is ruled by calm scientific bureaucracy. There are flags and there are bases but the major empires got tired taking down each others placards of ownership and even the Nazis only managed to drop iron poles embossed with swastikas. Peace reigns, for now, and governments have been forced to grapple with and legally conceptualise the existence of an extra-national continent.



Pyne characterises The Ice not only as a conceptual end of the world, but as a final fragment of knowledge or jigsaw piece in the understanding of the earth environment. As if the climate was a vast and complex machine attached to a gigantic beam, and at the far end, distant from the active parts, yet maintaining them in equilibrium and ultimately governing their movements, is The Ice, the worlds cold sink, the Ice which decides sea levels and global currents and glaciation and even the shape of the world.

"Even more elementary, there is little consensus on the causes of the ice ages, their baffling apparent periodicity, or their sudden termination. A host of known and suspected contributing causes is recognized: plate movement, which transports continents to polar regions and favourably distributes land-sea patterns; mountain-building, which creates glacial traps, potential source regions for ice; atmospheric changes, especially changes in the earths albedo or carbon-dioxide content that can influence global temperature; oceanographic changes, such as the deflection of the Gulf Stream, the creation of bottom water, or the establishment of the Antarctic circumpolar current; periodic magnetic reversals, which may alter insolation and temperatures; astronomical variations such as the Milankovitch cycles, which influence the amount of solar insolation; and glaciological properties, such as the massive instability of the west sheet and the positive feedback that ice has on the creation of more ice. No single cause appears to be adequate to control glaciation. Instead many factors, eac with its own rhythm or secular variation, compound with one another to produce effects on a necessary scale. Even here, feedback mechanisms are necessary to amplify small changes into global ones. Here the properties of ice qua ice become significant. Ice is such a wonderful instrument of positive feedback that glaciation encourages further glaciation; but equally, there are often inherent instabilities in the geography and glaciology of large ice masses, so that the masses may contain the dynamics of their own collapse, a historical dialectic of ice."

In this paradox the ultimate symbol of stasis becomes a kind of climatic amplifier, making the world more dynamic, unpredictable and extreme, though even this apparent extremity may feed into a greater meta-stability overall.

The concept of meta-stability, interacting elements which are active and seemingly violent or opposed but ultimaately necessary and balancing, is an important one to the book. The impression left is one of the earth as a grand orrery of meta-stable interactions, expanding and interacting across scale, distance and time, hiding dynamism in stability and finding calm through a network of storms.



The idea of Antarctica as a gateway to, or testing ground for, the cosmos, is hinted at and circled around but never stated outright. Pyne mentions that the centre of Antarctica is as close as we can get to Mars on earth, so it's environmental training, but much more than that, Antarctica is esthetic, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual training for the overwhelming emptiness of the cosmos.

As we find out more and more about the galaxy, we discover, locally, beautiful but lifeless worlds hanging in the air like toxic jewels, and beyond them, the incomprehensible vastness of space.

We have no training in this vastness and no way to really begin thinking about it. Pynes argument is that in order to divine or discover meaning in apparent nothingness, you must bring to it a deep and complex culture. The ice absorbs, annihilates and reduces everything and you have to import meaning to it, and ways of creating meaning.

I remember once reading someone say; "Americans don't solve problems, they overwhelm them*", and for all its cleverness and beauty and subtlety, Pynes argument is still the essential American argument = MORE. Bring more, do more, know more, think more and understand more. The answer to nothing is you attack the nothing with art and science and possibly bits of religion and you make it not-nothing.

Antarctica in this analysis becomes not the end of the world but the beginning of the cosmos.


"The de Kooning episode is even more instructive. the incident occurred at a time when de Kooning was a reigning guru of abstract expressionism, a movement that imagined itself as the apex of western art. Rauschenberg decided to erase a de kooning drawing. This was not vandalism but a creative and symbolic act. Accordingly, it required the participation of de Kooning, who eventually agreed. Rauschenberg laboriously erased the entire picture and framed the result.

The picture itself is nothing but a white paper with a frame and a title. Without the story behind its creation, it is meaningless, at most a joke, or an exercise in guerrilla theatre. The success of the picture depends on what the viewer beings to it. The "painting" is a negation, and its significance varies with the magnitude of the negation. the more associations one brings to the surface, the more intense its negation and the richer its meaning. It is much the same with Antactica. Inexorably, The Ice erases all the normal expectations of a landscape. What remains is so sparse, so stripped of sensory impressions, that it can hardly be witnessed as a landscape at all. Only someone, or some civilisation, that approaches it with a complex tradition of landscapes and art can invest enough in the scene to generate information out of it. There must be a confirmation before there can be a negation. The polar plateau becomes a great negation of landscape - actively erasing the normal lines of information and passively reflecting back the shadows of its observer."


The rare cores are the true magical currency of the Ice, each one can be read for a distinct history of magic & reality alteration(The annihilation of parallel worlds) every major reality shift leaves cascades of intangible half-life microparticles which quickly decay but which are preserved in the relentlessly static ice. These particles can be read to release their specific energies. Meta magicians can read the patterning of the cores to understand the 'history of histories' that defines the Uncertain Worlds. By doing to they hope to perceive and penetrate beyond the shifting realities that imprison them and so perceive the minds of the gods themselves.


What we bring to the ice is what we must bring to the cosmos, improved and deepened selves and a wiser more subtle culture that can find meaning in the vastness and the poisoned gems.

[Edit - I found it here.]


  1. It's sitting in my stack of library books, waiting. Have you read Jocelyn Godwin's _Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival_? I think there's some overlap in ideaspace. And Ken Hite highly recommends it.

  2. I don't wish to stoke your ego over much, but you are a credit to this hobby (that should be lucky to know a writer so fine).

  3. beautiful

    "Europeans can claim reasonably to absolutely, totally, full-on discovered on their own"
    where did they get the sled dogs though?
    (o v o)

    1. Girl, why you gotta always ruin things for white people?

  4. I wonder how much of perceived reality, is akin to that slate board emptiness, implied to be unique to the Antarctic landscape? There's a consciousness mystery there, solvable by the right mad man.