Take a crew of brilliant, talented misfits, throw them in a tightly controlled environment, make sure it’s at the edge of the world (someplace place where the sun doesn’t shine six months out of the year) — and you’ve got the setup for Ashley Shelby’s sharp, intriguing novel, SOUTH POLE STATION.
“We’re all here because of some shit,” says one character. True: some are there to conduct experiments, others to keep the place operational, but nearly everyone at the Pole’s research station is running or hiding from someone or something.
But they don’t struggle on their own, and that’s the pleasure of Shelby’s comedic novel. Despite their penchant for plotting against each other, cursing, taunting, and calling each other names, the author endows her cast of characters with compassion. She sets them up to care for — and take care of — each other. As one of the toughest hombres in the pack says, “You don’t do this kind of shit alone. Do it with us standing beside you.”
The story opens with Cooper Gosling applying for a National Science Foundation grant. She hopes to be one of the few, hand-picked visual artists to spend a year at the Pole — and this is some of the funniest writing of the novel. Cooper has mastered a way of speaking that’s guaranteed to distance herself from others and, most of all, from herself. She is ironic, sarcastic, and droll.
We get our first view of South Pole Station and its inhabitants from Cooper. Perspective shifts occasionally to other characters, but — and this is important — not before we come to know them first through Cooper’s eyes. And we always return to her. As a result, that emotional disconnect we often get from other novels, as they hop and skip continually from character to character, is happily absent here. We engage with Cooper and, gradually, with the other “Polies.”
As flawed as her Polies are, and as harsh as South Pole climate is, the author manages to pull off a frigid sort of Eden. But Edens never last. In this story, the arrival of a climate-change skeptic/denier inserts the ugly face of national politics into an environment of pure research. Resentments abound, accidents happen, and a romance is derailed.
The novel’s discussion of science is, for the most part, limited to the second half of the book. Topics include not only a quick summation of the climate-change debate, but also a challenge to the big-bang theory — all of which is skimmed over fairly quickly. If you’re a science buff, you’ll be disappointed by its superficiality (and even question some of its premises); if not, you’ll be relieved by its brevity.
Either way, for those who like stories that turn up the heat on groups of off-beat personalities trapped in tight quarters, South Pole Station is super cool. It’s a worthy debut and a sign of a smart new novelist arriving on the scene. (By the way, be sure to take note of Cooper’s last name.)
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.