January 23, 2017
I am delighted that SHOTS magazine published my feature on how an Antarctic expedition inspired the story in Devour.
I’m in an Antarctic blizzard – a white-out. The ferocious wind whips up ice particles and hurls them around me. The air is so thick, I cannot see the horizon, my feet, or even my hands. It’s -10°C, which is positively balmy by Antarctic standards, but the wind chill makes it feel more like -30°C. I am disoriented and dizzy: my sense of balance, challenged. It is like being inside a white golf ball that’s on the move. I start to panic even though I know I am with people who will guide me to safety. Yet I have heard so many stories about experienced Antarctic expeditioners dying in whiteouts, slowly freezing to death because they cannot find their way to shelter, discovered days later with very few clothes on because, in the latter stages of hypothermia, victims feel as if they are over-heating, and, no longer able to think clearly, take off the garments that might otherwise save their lives.
What I am experiencing will fuel the opening chapter of my latest thriller, Devour.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and, surprisingly, driest, place on Earth. The lowest natural temperature ever recorded at ground level was at Antarctica’s Vostok Station – a chilly −89.2 °C. Because of the severity of its climate, people working there face real danger every day. Their isolation is extreme. If they need urgent assistance, it may take months before a ship or plane can reach them. It is the perfect place to set a thriller – characters under pressure even before I introduce sabotage and murder. On top of this, the fascinating scientific research conducted in Antarctica fuels my imagination.
It will come as no surprise to people who have read my thrillers that I am a big fan of Michael Crichton. Often it is scientific developments that inspire my stories: discoveries that fascinate, and, sometimes, horrify me. I follow the exploits of the British Antarctic Survey and the Australian Antarctic Division. I keep in touch with scientists who work there. I read New Scientist and National Geographic. One day, in 2012, I discovered a British expedition was going to an extremely remote part of Antarctica to drill down through three kilometres of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake. Evidence suggested there was life in the buried lake that had been cut off from the rest of the world for possibly a million years.
I was hooked. What a great premise for a story: heroism, adventure, danger and the possibility that bringing such a life form to the surface might have catastrophic consequences. After all, these micro-organisms had never had contact with mankind, or the world we have created, so how could anyone be certain that they posed no threat?
I contacted the team, headed by Professor Martin Siegert. I discovered there are four hundred lakes buried beneath Antarctica’s massive ice sheets and very little is known about their contents, except that geothermal heat from the Earth’s core has kept them liquid and that life forms known as ‘extremophiles’ are possibly existing in total darkness beneath the ice. Siegert’s team was attempting to reach Lake Ellsworth – believed to be the size of Lake Windermere. They would need to fly to Union Glacier, land on an ice strip, cross the Ellsworth Mountains and transport by tractor-train a total of 100 tonnes of equipment. They had developed a unique hot water drill, water sampling probe and sediment corer: all ground-breaking stuff.
I asked Professor Siegert if he had concerns about the safety of bringing these microbes out from their icy tomb. He explained that they would be taking the utmost care to ensure their security. He also explained that his team was taking great pains to avoid any contamination. A Russian team had already attempted to drill down to Antarctica’s sub-glacial Lake Vostok, but there had been controversy because they had used contaminants such as anti-freeze.
As a thriller author, all I could think of was what if these extremophiles could not be contained as easily as he suggested?
I met with Professor Siegert, in a Bristol coffee shop in 2013, shortly after he had returned from his mammoth undertaking at Lake Ellsworth. Sadly, lack of fuel to power the generators prevented them from reaching Lake Ellsworth, but as he explained, this kind of pioneering research seldom succeeds first time. ‘We’ve learnt a lot of lessons. How the equipment works and how to operate a deep field site, and with those lessons we will… regather ourselves… and hopefully plan a second return season.’ (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ll6SXgjCN7M )
The information Professor Siegert generously shared with me was very helpful. But, it was my first-hand experience of Antarctica that enabled me to bring Antarctica to life on the page. It gave me the chance to feel, hear, see, taste and smell Antarctica. And, boy, do those penguin colonies smell! I learned Polar survival techniques, crevasse rescue, even how to sew up a wound. I discovered that there is no police force or military presence in Antarctica (except for McMurdo which has US Marshalls). So if your life is in danger, you are on your own, mate! Fortunately, Antarctica is the only continent in the world where there has been no recorded murder.
But in the fictional world of my thriller, the central character, investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe, arrives at Camp Ellsworth to discover that one of the team has been murdered, and very quickly her life is in danger. But Wolfe is resilient and resourceful, and used to extreme environments. She has reported from war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and The Crimea. She’s been trained by a retired detective to defend herself using martial arts: a combination of Jiu-Jitsu and everyday objects as weapons. These self-defence techniques were demonstrated to me by a friend and martial artist in my back garden, including the use of a key chain swung upwards to cut an assailant’s face and stun him, which Wolfe uses in Afghanistan. Later in the novel, Wolfe will fire a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol. Having never fired one myself, I went to a rifle range and learned how to use one, because I wanted Wolfe’s experience to come across as authentic.
Towards the end of 2016, I once again met with Professor Siegert at the Royal Geographic Society in London. I was delighted to learn that he is planning a new expedition to Antarctica, this time targeting a different sub-glacial lake. The mission is the same: to discover new life.
I wonder what he will find down there. Friend or foe?