We’re reading SHACKLETON’S MAN GOES SOUTH by Tony White

29 May

The first novel ever published by London’s Science Museum is a triumph of controlled anger, says David Gullen

Shackleton’s Man Goes South
Tony White
Science Museum London, ebook (free) / PPB, £10.00 from the bookshop while stocks last

Early in the Twentieth Century men went to Antarctica from the Northern hemisphere. They went for science, and for adventure. Some became heroes because they lived; some, because they died. Scott’s own tragedy overshadowed the rest of the expedition’s achievements. These included the discovery of fossils that showed the Antarctic was once warm enough to be covered in forest, even though the continent was positioned essentially where it is today – at the South Pole. Others such as George Simpson, meteorologist for Scott’s 1910 Terra Nova expedition (pictured above), wrote science fiction.

In the near future of Tony White’s novel, women go South too. They are following their menfolk, fleeing an environmental catastrophe that has simultaneously devastated half the world and made Antarctica a habitable refuge. South Georgia is smothered by a new city: a decadent, corrupt and violent frontier. Part refugee camp, part fin-de-siècle Shanghai, it swarms with boat people, gangsters and soldiers from the north.

Part fiction, part historical narrative, part science journalism, Shackleton’s Man Goes South depicts an adventure as magnificent and dreadful as Scott’s or Shackleton’s. Commissioned by the Science Museum as part of a five-year programme of contemporary art on the subject of climate, this is a book about going forwards by going back. Characters in the future echo those from the past; as clues from fossils and ice cores tell us about a warmer past, and hint at the future.

In that future, the climate refugee Emily flees south to supposed safety in the company of the complex and conflicted human trafficker Browning. Meanwhile, White skilfully conducts a parallel journey through conversations and interviews with contemporary scientists, and delves into the documentation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The cyclic nature of climate reveals that what has come before can come again. The world of the future, Emily’s world, depends on what happens in the present. Get this wrong and we’re all going South.

It’s not often that fiction, a novel, genuinely manages to shock. There’s a kind of madness in this angry, passionate and vivid book. It captures the hubris that comes of being human, the grand dreams and cold necessities that send one person on wild, doomed expeditions while another sells children or waterboards prisoners in the name of liberty. It leads you into strange and half-understood places.

Yes, the pace falters sometimes. The digression into the origins of eugenics, and George Simpson’s possible involvement, doesn’t really justify its keep. Still, one of the delights of the Enlightenment was the belief that no one thing, no field of knowledge, of understanding, was more important than another. Science, philosophy, literature and art – all informed the human condition. Tony White has synthesised his own small enlightenment in this book. He does not presume to tell us how the world functions, or how we find meaning in it. He does pinpoint what we are doing to it, and what our responses are right now to the effects we are having.

Some of these responses are frightening. Others are farcical. Quite a few are both. In the IPCCs Summary for Policymakers: Emissions Scenarios, for instance, White discovered a dangerous new kind of fiction:

“All scenarios describe futures that are generally more affluent than today.”

So much for realism. White’s brutally fascinating story of past, present, and future feels far more solid.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South is available for free download until late July from London’s Science Museum website.

The Atmosphere Gallery houses an exhibition to accompany the book (below)

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