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Thursday, July 16, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Earth's Final Frontier -- Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson Sets Genre-Defying Latest Book In The Alien Wilderness Of Antarctica

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- BOOK REPORT

"Antarctica" Science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson will discuss and autograph "Antarctica" at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Seattle's University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E. (206-634-3400). -------------------------------

Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of the award-winning science-fiction Mars Trilogy - "Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars" - has brought himself a bit closer to home in his newest novel.

"Antarctica" (Bantam, $24.95), set on that continent in the not-too-distant future, is a well-plotted adventure yarn that deliberately defies tidy categorization. It has a bit of everything: science, history, political commentary, culture, romance and action, as well as an evocative description of the icy landscape that rivals some of our best nature writers in its beauty and expressiveness.

The Antarctica of Robinson's novel is threatened on many fronts. As the treaty limiting the world's exploitation of the continent begins to unravel, countries search for ways to extract its natural resources while eco-terrorists try to stop them.

"Ice pirates" raid supply convoys and scavenge deserted bases, while scientists probe the workings of the universe from beneath the polar ice cap. Adventure-travel tours, meanwhile, trace the footsteps of Scott, Amundsen, Shackelton and other early explorers.

Making the transition from Mars to Antarctica was easy for Robinson, he said in a recent telephone interview.

"While I was doing research for my Mars trilogy, I kept running across references to Antarctica because that's where a lot of the (Mars) scientists do their analogy research," said Robinson.

Eventually he received a National Science Foundation grant to travel to the ice continent, and he spent six weeks there as part of the NSF's Antarctic Artists and Writers' Program.

"I was like a roving reporter," he said. "I had complete carte blanche from NSF to go where I wanted, as long as I could get invitations from scientific groups in the field."

Since Robinson had already established contacts with many of the Antarctic scientists while researching his Mars books, those invitations were readily extended.

The line between fact and fiction is a deliberately hazy one in the novel.

"Some of the things that are happening in the book are happening now, and some of them have already happened, and some of them can't happen for about 50 years," he said. "I wanted to fuzz those issues. My feeling was (that) this novel needed to kind of fit across several different genres - you know: the thriller, the adventure novel, the political espionage novel, the near-future science-fiction novel.

"These are sets of conventions to be played with," he added. "They're not really rules that you need to follow. And I think the text is more interesting if you're kind of criss-crossing like that and confusing issues."

Luckily, Robinson was able to "confuse issues" without confusing the reader - except for a disorienting few pages near the beginning, when it's unclear just how far in the future the novel is set. (Robinson laughed when I tried to pin him down: "This is the question I was trying to dodge in the book. I just want to think of it as the near future. The day after tomorrow.")

Ultimately, past, present and future weave together into a satisfying fictional moment. And though a few plot elements near the end strain the reader's credulity (don't these people ever sleep?), they detract only slightly from an excellent tale told with Robinson's characteristic skill and grace.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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