Shackleton's Man Goes South is an intriguing object—from the choice of title, through the three different opening chapters to the three expanding, disconnecting, closing chapters. Even the Acknowledgements ask for thought. Yet this is not so much a novel as an assemblage of material from which the reader is asked to take meaning. The desire to find sense in the material and to believe that the author put it there is twinned with the fear that there is no meaning at all, that this volume is pure Rorschach blot.
The opening chapter is a squib. It is a quality piece of writing, enlivened by a nod to Michael Moorcock, but its only engagement with the rest of the book is through the introduction of "the found manuscript gag" (p. 23). This short story is a counterfactual description of the science museum buildings as the center of "an aerial 'shanty town'" (p. 3), a "cable kingdom . . . by which the citizens below both disseminated and delivered their communications" (p. 4). The world described feels familiar from the opening pages of Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine (1990), but here, the supposed extracts from an unpublished novel move on to "the Zeppelin attack which razed the old Science Museum buildings and the bulk of the Imperial Institute" (p. 6). This was, apparently, no mere bombing raid but a superscience event. The chapter effortlessly evokes huge clouds of steampunk imagery. But after it ends, there is not even the slightest further reference to these events of 1916.
The body of the book alternates between telling the story of Emily and Jenny, climate change refugees who have reached the relative safety of South Georgia, and a non-fiction engagement with climate change.
The debt to Shackleton shows in the fictional parts. Emily is also the name of Ernest Shackleton's wife, whilst the people smuggler is known as Browning, also the name of Shackleton’s favorite poet. Their story begins in chapter two—"Patience Camp"—which begins wonderfully. The title uses the name of Ernest Shackleton's camp on the sea ice, where he and his men waited for the drift to take them north after they had abandoned their ship. However, our protagonists are approaching the island of South Georgia, being the land which Shackleton's boat party reached after an astonishing sea crossing in an open boat. The travelers can smell "the potent and unmistakable human cocktail carried to them across miles of ocean" (p. 10). Here is a world ripped from the pages of John Calvin Batchelor's The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica (1983). It has Batchelor's cold, desperate people hoping against hope to be able to make a new start at the end of the world; it has that novel's hatred and distrust of the old order; it even has the same South Georgia setting. In contrast, White tells his story without the bombast which so strongly flavors Batchelor's work, leaving more room for sympathy with these refugees. At the sentence level, this is quality writing:
It was almost deafening after so long at sea where the only accompaniment had been the gentle applause of water slapping the sides of the boat. It was as if sound was the medium in which Patience Camp and South Georgia were suspended. As if noise superseded air and water to create a sonic atmosphere that battered with acoustic weather, a great percussive cacophony. It felt as if they were at the centre of some chaotic universe of sound created by so much humanity on the move and this vicious wind that whipped and tore and rattled at everything. (p. 17)
They hope to go on to the Antarctic continent where Emily's husband went ahead, but for the body of this fiction, they are stuck in Patience Camp. The setting is distinctive for its South Georgia location, but there is a reliance on the reader's familiarity with the nature of refugee camps.
The non-fiction chapters form a multi-part essay titled "Antarctic Scenarios" which could sit quite happily in the pages of a middlebrow journal. It is heavy on the kind of journalism which situates the interview: "Professor Spicer—Bob—generously gives me a couple of hours of his time, even though the following day he is leaving for a two-month fieldwork trip to India" (p. 50). This thread begins with a potted history of Scott and Shackleton and develops into a discussion of the history of the science of climate change. There is little here to excite or enrage. Our author falls into a few of the usual traps of telling Antarctic history, but avoids just as many. This history is the starting point of White's discussion of climate change, as one of the earliest uses of the term comes from Scott's meteorologist, George Simpson, in a scientific romance written and published during Scott's last expedition. Simpson's story has no connection to Shackleton, who wasn't on that expedition, making it hard to see why the book is titled Shackleton's Man Goes South. White goes on to interview a number of interesting professional scientists on climate change, past and future, who have differing opinions on the extent of its effects, but avoids any engagement with those who deny its existence. There is an odd diversion into the eugenic uses of ice ages and a once popular justification for the white race's superiority based on having just the right amount of environmental stress. Somewhere in there, I suspect White is trying to make a point but perhaps I am being too teleological and should view this as an information sharing exercise, an opportunity to inform.
Of course, there are points White is very keen to make, but he destroys his fiction to do it. As Patience Camp becomes a more obvious analogy for every refugee camp in the modern world, Emily and Jenny's story becomes more hopeless. Rather than carry this story through, White now steps outside it, to present it as a performance—a "ballad opera"—being presented in a detention facility. The greater, more active oppression by authority still reflects Batchelor's work, but the detail quickly becomes a reflection of actual facilities. Indeed, as the acknowledgements say, "Description of the fictional 'CBCP Endurance' detention facility in Chapter 12 is derived for satirical purposes from official descriptions." By this point the non-fictional narrative has tailed away. Its final topic of discussion is directly reflected here: that those at the bottom of the heap will suffer most, as they always do, that the forces of authority and othering will be enough to keep us thinking that this is someone else's problem. More subtly, White opens the possibility that, in the end, we each might be that someone else, that unfortunate refugee. He introduces Emily as follows: "she might look a bit like you, if you are a woman; about the same height and build. If you are a man, she looks a bit like your sister if you have one, or a cousin or female friend; one who is quite close to you in age" (p. 16). Late in the book, Browning is similarly described. But White changes focus again, moving firmly into Ken MacLeod territory. Chapter thirteen describes in a matter of fact manner the preparations for a waterboarding; it is masterfully understated, building a growing sense of horror that this is not really fiction, that it actually happens in the world today.
And then the frame pulls out again; even the previous chapter is itself a text, found in "the British Library, Stromness" (p. 151). Now we have a new implied narrator, referencing all the foregoing as story; but the idea that the British Library is itself in South Georgia suggests, all over again, that everything we have experienced in this book is, at least in outline, part of a future history. And there is one more wrinkle to come—a found text inside this text in the British Library. This new text is the "so called 'High Seas Memorandum' of celebrated 21st-century humanitarian and anti-torture campaigner John C. Yoo" (p. 151). It is a clear and definite argument against all forms of torture, describing it as any "intentional acts such as those designed to damage and destroy the human personality" (p. 154). This document, as published, is a hugely powerful indictment, a strong statement despite the black marks of lost detail throughout it. But the headings confuse. This appears to be from the U.S. Department of Justice, and is dated March 14th, 2003. Gradually, the recognition comes that this is a constructed document, that the "lost text" is redaction, that White has taken a document which infamously condones torture and reversed the meaning; that "Torture is torture is torture" (p. 155).
The Acknowledgements tell perhaps the truest story of this book's construction. It has been built through workshops, a lecture with readings, a residency, a commission, an exploratory essay, and through found texts adapted for satirical purposes. With such a multitude of sources, and having started at least as far back as 2007, it is hardly a surprise the final text has the shape of a portfolio. As such, Shackleton's Man Goes South is an odd collection of texts. The final chapter is powerful, but unearned, disconnected from the bulk of the text before it. There is a temptation to peer at this book from the same direction as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004); there are multiple fascinating images here, but it never becomes a single work and the fiction lacks the courage of its convictions, unable to accept its own suspension of disbelief.