'Dark Winter': Writer raises chill factor with Antarctic thriller
Seattle Times book editor
That's the chilling feeling one gets when reading Anacortes writer William Dietrich's new thriller, "Dark Winter" (Warner, $24.95), about a group of scientists and support workers wintering at the South Pole who discover they have a madman in their midst.
On the pole's icy flats, the savage subzero temperatures are as threatening as any deranged human. Here are some premonitory words the hero, geologist Jed Lewis, hears when he arrives at the Pole from New Zealand:
"'We had a fly stowaway from New Zealand one time,' the load master shouted, his military mustache almost brushing Lewis's ear. ... 'Buzzed like a bastard for three thousand miles! When we opened the doors it flew to the light and made it three feet! Three feet!'" Then the fly "dropped like a stone."
Before a reader is done with "Dark Winter," he or she will be thoroughly schooled in the brutality of the Antarctic winter, as well as the strategies humans use to survive there. Lewis will engage in a bracing, real-life ritual called the 360-degree club (in which he goes from a 180-plus-degree sauna to a dead run around the South Pole, where ambient temperatures drop to minus 180 degrees); become the object of the sexual tension that can percolate among 30-plus adults marooned with one another; and endure his co-workers' conviction that he is a killer.
Someone is. The bodies fall left and right in "Dark Winter," but along the way the reader gets an eye-opening view of life at the South Pole during the coldest, darkest months.
This premise may sound like Dietrich ripped off the saga of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the scientist who discovered, while stationed at the pole in 1999, that she had cancer. She had to treat herself, and wait for months to be rescued.
In fact, Dietrich hoped to use the pole as a fictional laboratory for the extremes of human nature well before the news of Nielsen's illness broke. The former science reporter for The Seattle Times has been to Antarctica twice on National Science Foundation fellowships, once offshore on a research ship and once, for two weeks, at the pole itself.
"When I went down to the pole, they told me that people couldn't get out in the winter," he says. "I said, 'What happens if something goes wrong?' They said, 'Nothing's ever gone wrong.' "
He approached the National Science Foundation about returning to the pole in summer 1999 to develop his idea. He believes that foundation officials, who get $200 million a year from the government to run research and operations at the pole, turned him down for that visit because they knew, even then, that Nielsen was sick. The author believes that officials were concerned and consumed with how Nielsen's drama would play out.
"The whole idea of what I wanted to do was subsumed in, `What do we say about this?' " Dietrich believes.
Another real-life crisis
This week, coincidental with the publication of "Dark Winter" this month, officials struggled with the same dilemma - how to extract Dr. Ronald Shemenski, the only physician at the pole, who was suffering from a life-threatening attack of pancreatitis.
The pole's minus-100-degree temperatures and constant darkness make fluid congeal, flaps freeze and metal parts snap, making it almost impossible to contemplate landing a plane there. While one air crew rescued 11 other people Tuesday from McMurdo Station on Antarctica's coast, other pilots yesterday picked up Shemenski in a daring rescue at the pole.
That geographical claustrophobia is the context for the events that propel "Dark Winter's" plot, except that the looming catastrophe is not illness, but a sociopath among the station's 12 scientists and technicians and its 14 support personnel (stationmasters, cooks, mechanics, etc.).
The book presents a series of fascinating conundrums about life at the pole, not the least of which is the fact that a bunch of highly individualistic folks must learn how to get along together to survive (and, in "Dark Winter," to find the killer).
Scientists may outrank workers in the outside world. But at the pole, it's the worker bees who get the superior gear because they're the ones everyone's survival depends on.
As an outsider who has watched scientists do their work under extreme situations, Dietrich finds the "beakers," as researchers are dubbed at the pole, a fascinating group.
"The same thing that makes them self-reliant individuals makes it hard for them to cooperate as a community," he says. "They feel intensely. Almost like artists. Their egos are big, and their ambitions are big. They're brilliant, but they're not necessarily self-analytical."
"Dark Winter" is a thriller, but it's also a novel of ideas. Conversations that dissect the behavior of humans under pressure are interspersed with multiple murders, and this reader was left wanting more about the appealing characters and less blood on the snow.
At times Dietrich's philosophical ruminations seem to want to burst the boundaries of the genre.
But Dietrich excels at portraying life at the pole, and the unearthly beauty in that forsaken place that lures people toward it: "The sun was slowly dipping toward six-month night and the aqua crevasses and sugared crags below were melodramatic with blaze and shadow. Golden photons, bouncing off virginal snow, created a hazed fire. Frozen seas looked like cracked porcelain. Unnamed peaks reared out of fogs thick as frosting, and glaciers grinned with splintery teeth attached to blue gums. It was all quite primeval, untrodden and unspoiled, a white board on which to draw yourself."
Next step is into the past
Dietrich, who now has written three novels set in extreme settings (the Antarctic and the Australian outback), says his next novel will be set in an entirely different time and place - Britain under the Romans.
The main character is a woman who travels to Britain with her Roman husband, gets kidnapped by the Celts and finds a lot in common with her captors.
Dietrich traveled to England this spring to research the past. "It amazes me how utterly recognizable people from that age are," he says, citing a letter he read, written by a Roman woman, describing the lonely feeling of having one other woman the sole guest at her birthday party, because there was no one else on the frontier to celebrate it.
Of his own fascination with the frontiers of experience, he says that there's something about places like Antarctica that shrinks things to their proper proportions.
"It takes you out of your normal life and into a somewhat buglike existence," he says. "The idea that you can look at a mountain and it doesn't have a name. A lot of life is profoundly unsatisfying for a lot of people. Those kinds of landscapes give people a real feeling of escape."