Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Extreme weather and extremophiles

Frozen Solid
by James M.Tabor

I thought James M. Tabor’s fiction debut, The Deep Zone, was flawed, but promising. I’m happy to report that his sophomore novel, Frozen Solid, has lived up to that promise. While Mr. Tabor still has room to grow, this second novel was just as much fun as the first, and far better executed.

Frozen Solid again features his protagonist, Hallie Leland. The government microbiologist has been routed up to Antarctica of all places, just days before the winter-over begins. She’s there to fill in for a deceased scientist—an old friend of Hallie’s, as it happens. Once more, Hallie’s unusual skill set (climbing, diving, laboratory research) is a match for a project’s needs. Unfortunately, her brief visit gets off to a terrible start, as more scientists succumb to an unknown ailment. Tensions are running high in a powder keg environment. Meanwhile, Hallie has suspicions about her predecessor’s death and is having problems with the research project. Is someone sabotaging her work? The entire base? And will she be able to fly out in four days, or will she be stuck in Antarctica for months?

Mr. Tabor gets all of his plot elements into position beautifully. I had a few qualms early on in the novel. There was a brief snatch of clichéd and clunky writing. (“I will find you, she vowed. If it takes the rest of my life, I will find you. Wil Bowman will help me. And you will pay.”) And there were some minor plot contrivances. (Some of those clues were awfully easy to find—even when she wasn’t looking for them.) But once the story got going, those early issue fell by the wayside as the novel’s momentum took over. The pacing of the novel was excellent. It moved quickly and was full of excitement. Sometimes the action in thrillers feels like it’s just inserted to keep things moving, but here it all felt organic to the story being told. Let’s face it, Antarctica is an extreme environment, and when you’re diving beneath the ice or staging a colleague’s rescue, it’s exciting stuff.

Plus, there’s Hallie’s area of scientific inquiry. She studies extremophiles—organisms that survive in
extreme environments—like miles below the ice. Or, an organism that “survives in sodium concentrations that would kill anything else.” This isn’t a Crichton novel. It isn’t as chock full of science, but I wish that it was, because what was there was fascinating. Hallie’s a girl after my own heart… “In the end, she found herself asking this question: Who do you trust when you can’t trust anybody? The answer came quickly: Not who. What. And the what was science. You could always trust the science.” I trusted Mr. Tabor’s science here. Sure, it’s speculative as hell, but it has the ring of truth and some research behind it. Plus, it was super cool! That’s good enough for me.

I like Hallie as a character. I really enjoy seeing a strong, confident, competent, and believable woman at the center of an action/adventure series. (“She knew this was how disasters began: with a single failure that led to two others, each of which led to more, a cascade of events feeding upon itself.”) This is a lady that doesn’t wait to be rescued. She rescues herself—and frequently others. There are a couple of other characters from the first novel in supporting roles, but as Hallie is out of her normal environment, most of the cast is new, and they’re a fairly intriguing bunch. I’m quite willing to believe that it’s a quirky crew attracted to work in Antarctica. Obviously, the setting is an important part of the tale, and Tabor’s Antarctica is a bit more oppressive and depressive than most depictions. It is atmospheric, that’s for sure. His settings are evocative and well-drawn—none better than the underwater scenes. (Yes, that was totally my favorite part.)

When all is said and done, I’ve seen variations on the novel’s central plot before, but it was well-handled and getting there was more than half the fun. I feel that my early faith in Mr. Tabor’s growth as a novelist has been well –rewarded, and I shall be looking forward to his next offering with even more anticipation and enthusiasm.

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