A lot of science fiction about the Earth's warmer future is dystopian, showing us drowned cities and people reduced to Road Warrior desperados. But Tobias Buckell's new novel, Arctic Rising, offers a far more complicated and realistic picture of what the world will look like when the poles melt. It's a breakneck eco-thriller about "Arctic Tiger" nations like Canada clashing with green mega-corporations over what to do about the Earth's climate. At every turn, Buckell will surprise you with plot twists that fly in the face of conventional wisdom about environmental issues, and with cool ideas about how people will adapt to life on the Arctic Rim.
Arctic Rising is in many ways an extended thought experiment about how climate change in the Arctic will alter the world's nations and economies. Buckell asks: Who will benefit from global warming, and whose lives could be destroyed by turning back the clock on climate change? Set several decades after the Arctic is ice-free, we see a region bustling with new industry. Shipping lanes that didn't exist before are open for business, and nations like Greenland that were once ice-locked have yielded tons of natural resources like diamonds and other minerals. The world is approaching a peak oil scenario, but coal is still viable as an energy source. Companies like Gaia Corporation, which specializes in green energy, have become economic powerhouses alongside old mining industry companies.
One of the most complicated questions in this new world is who exactly controls Arctic waters. Many nations lay claim to various regions in this newly-open sea, but mostly the area is a regulated by the UN and a hodgepodge of other interests (including a bizarre libertarian nation called Thule, built out of old cargo ships, aircraft carriers, and the last remaining bits of glacier at the Pole). Enter our hero, Anika Duncan, trained in the Nigerian military but now living out her dream as a UN Polar Guard. Her job is to fly an airship over the sea, looking for possible criminal activity or problems. One of the issues she deals with regularly are shady companies who dump nuclear waste in the Arctic's unclaimed waters, and her adventure begins when she thinks she's spotted one such company. She picks up a radiation signature from a cargo ship, follows it, and finds herself in a firefight that ends in the death of her partner.
When she finds that the ship's nuke cargo is being hushed up, Anika goes AWOL on a vengeance mission. She wants to find the bastards who killed her partner, and get to the bottom of the coverup. In search of answers, she meets characters who could only exist in this strange new Arctic powerhouse — seriously deadly Canadian intelligence agents, a drug dealer who owns a strip club built underneath an old oil drilling platform, and billionaire environmentalists with a new kind of geotech that could cool the Earth again. Before she knows it, she's on a hunt for more than she bargained for. Somebody has smuggled a nuke into the Arctic, and they plan to use it.
The central mystery of the book is who has the nuke, and why. The main suspects are the nations and corporations who are on the brink of war over what to do about refreezing the pole. Now that so many countries and people depend on wealth generated by the Arctic, locking it back in the ice is no longer an ethical slam dunk. Buckell's tale may be an adventure story at heart, but he doesn't shy away from asking difficult political questions. Though people are clearly being harmed by climate change, they are also benefiting from it. Bringing back the ice may not save humanity after all. By the time we reach the novel's incredible climax, we've been fully immersed in a realistic political world, full of betrayals and strange alliances created by shifts in the planet's ecosystems.
Though generally a fast ride, the book does occasionally slow to a crawl when characters take far too much time to explain geopolitics and history to each other. You'll also find yourself scratching your head over why Anika makes certain decisions at key moments.
That said, if you want a smart thriller that presents complicated moral dilemmas, Arctic Rising should be on your to-read list. Buckell knows how to write a terrific fight scene, and he's set his trademark showdowns in a fully-realized future world where environmental issues aren't just green, but thousands of shades of gray.
You can pick up Arctic Rising at your favorite bookstore, or via Amazon.