Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Zodiac Station"

Tom Harper has written a dozen thrillers, including The Orpheus Descent, Lost Temple, and Secrets of the Dead. He grew up in Germany, Belgium, and America, and studied history at Oxford University. His first novel was a runner-up for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Harper applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, Zodiac Station, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Zodiac Station is mostly blank. Seven lines of text tailing off a chapter end, barely making a dent in the expanse of white paper. You might think that doesn’t say much about the book: actually, it’s strangely appropriate.

Because this is, in part, a book about blankness, about those Conradian white spaces at the top of the globe, and the darkness we find there. In a key passage early in the book, the narrator describes his fascination with the Arctic. ‘As long as I can remember I’ve dreamed of the north… The north’s a blank page, tabula rasa, white space on our own private maps we can fill in all over again.’ That’s what this book’s about – along with the secrets that lie buried under the pristine snow.

So what is there on page 69, aside from blank space? Here’s the whole text:
I looked around. Only my footprints.

‘Martin never came down here.’ That wasn’t quite accurate. ‘Not when he was alive.’

‘Anything else?’ She jerked her head towards the snowmobiles. ‘It’s a long drive back.’

I left the bones in their icy grave. And this time, I remembered to free the snowmobile tracks from the ice before I started the engine.
This is a conversation between Tom Anderson, my protagonist, and Greta, the woman who’s helping him. Tom is a washed-up research assistant who’s been given a second shot at his career when an old professor summoned him to work at the scientific base of Zodiac Station. Greta is the base mechanic, a hard woman in the world of men, whose main job is to keep Anderson alive in the unforgiving Arctic wastes. In this scene, they’ve returned to examine the crevasse where a scientist from Zodiac Station was found dead. The base commander insists he fell in by accident; Tom and Greta aren’t so sure. Investigating the crevasse, they find a set of tiny bones. It’s strange, because bodies don’t decompose in the Arctic: the cold dry air ought to preserve them perfectly.

The line about freeing the snowmobile tracks from the ice is something I picked up on my research trip. I spent ten days on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, deep in the Arctic circle, which shares some characteristics with the fictional island in the book. I covered several hundred kilometres on snowmobiles, got a frostbitten nose and learned a lot about what can go wrong with the machines. When you stop after a long drive, the hot treads melt the snow under them and sink in. As it cools, the melted snow freezes back to ice, locking in the snowmobile. If you don’t lift it out to free the tracks before you go off again, you can burn out the engine. As the text implies, Tom’s already done this once at this stage.

That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to suggest page 69 is a perfect representation of the book, because actually there’s lots of things going on in the story: murder, espionage, sex, paranoia, corporate skulduggery and bad science to name but a few. But if, like me, you get a cold shot of excitement when you read books about the frozen north, you’ll understand why that white space is important, too.
Visit Tom Harper's website.

My Book, The Movie: Zodiac Station.

--Marshal Zeringue