The Pole

The Pole: Preamble

This 500 word short-short story appeared in my first collection, Extreme Weather Events (2001). It reflects my continuing fascination with the events of December 1911 and January 1912, when the Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen and the British expedition under Robert Falcon Scott contended, with their different methods and different personalities, to be the first in recorded history to reach the South Pole. It’s an era and a competition about which there is still controversy.

I was raised on tales of the heroism of Scott and his other great rival, Ernest Shackleton – yet, in those tales, Amundsen was always regarded as an outsider and something of a bounder, a Johnny Foreigner using such underhand methods as meticulous preparation and detailed organisation to succeed where British pluck and improvisation failed.

“The Pole” is far from the first story to re-imagine the race for the Pole – one of its most distinguished predecessors is Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur. I even have an idea for a “The Pole 2”, which, perhaps fortunately, I haven’t yet written. But here, in 500 words or so, is my version of the race for the Pole.

The Pole

Amundsen and Scott approached the Pole from opposite directions. They halted when they were each about ten feet from it. Their men, who had been following warily behind, joined their leaders, and two semi-circles of tired, hungry, dirty explorers glared at each other through the drifting snow.

There were protocols to be observed on such occasions. “Pony-butchers!” yelled Helmer Hanssen.

“Dog-killers!” replied Wilson. This wasn’t really fair; the English had killed their dogs, too, but the difference — an important difference to all right-thinking Englishmen — was that this had been the result of incompetence rather than design.

“Disorganised rabble!” True enough.

“Cheats!” This was the Englishmen’s greatest complaint. Everyone knew Scott had first dibs on the pole, yet this arrogant Norwegian had tried to beat him to it.

Insults go only so far. It may have been Evans who scooped up the first handful of icy snow; soon, the air was filled with missiles, little packets of misery bound for neck or chest or face. The activity released something in them; they danced and capered, bending and straightening, hurling challenges when they were not hurling snow, their ranks dissolving into a fluid ballet of man and ice.

But it was cold, utterly cold, and they were tired. Scott and Amundsen (who had kept themselves largely aloof from the frenzy infecting their men) looked at each other, brushed the snow from their clothes, then motioned for silence. Each leader walked forward, step for step, until their hands could clasp.

“Welcome to the Pole, Captain Scott.”

“Welcome to the Pole, Mr Amundsen.”

They shook hands again. Then they moved to one side and repeated the handshake for the cameras, and it is Bjaaland’s photograph we have seen so many times, the two leaders, hoods thrown back, smiling at each other, there at that desire of all true hearts, the Pole.

After the handshakes were over, after the exchange of gifts between the men, they returned to the Pole itself. Whoever had made the cairn that stood there had built well, but there was no clue to their identity, nor to how they had brought the rock from some distant outcrop. It took the best part of an hour to dismantle the cairn, bury its rocks a suitable distance away, and smooth over the snow.

When the site had been cleared, they stood two ski poles upright in the snow, lashed on the Norwegian flag and the Union Jack, and took a further round of photos. After the British had gorged themselves on the Norwegians’ food — for the British were half-starved, while the Norwegians had more than they needed — each party left the Pole behind, with many a final glance at the two flags fluttering bravely together in the wind, and began the long trek home.

Extreme Weather Events, my first short story collection

Extreme Weather Events was my first short story collection. It was published in 2001 by HeadworX, as part of their now-discontinued Pocket Fiction Series. There are twelve stories in Extreme Weather Events:

Maria and the Tree
Wintering Over
The New Land
The Kiwi Contingent
My Friend the Volcano
The Pole
The Lizard
Tour Party, Late Afternoon
Black Box
The Man Who Loved Maps
The Temple in the Matrix

To introduce a few, “Wintering Over” is set in Antarctica, where an isolated scientific party has an unusual visitor from the past: Titus Oates, that very gallant colleague of Captain Scott who went for a walk, and proved to be quite some time indeed. “The Pole”, also set in Antarctica, rewrites the struggle to be first to the South Pole. “Black Box” sees strange developments on the Wellington skyline, while “My Friend the Volcano” blows her top in Taranaki.

“Flensing” and “The Lizard” are pretty much the only two horror stories I’ve ever written. “Flensing” is set in South Georgia, which gives it a slight edge, I think. And “The Temple in the Matrix” pokes a few toes into the interstitial pond in a Bill-Gibson-meets-HP-Lovecraft-uptown kind of way.

The book got some good reviews and I still come across satisfyingly dog-eared copies in public libraries. If you’d like a copy, you can order it from me for $5 plus postage & packing (in NZ, p&p will be $2, making a grand total of $7 for the book. I’ll need to work out the postage & packing for other territories). Please send an email to saying you’d like a copy, and we’ll take it from there.

The New Land

This 800-word story appears in my first short fiction collection, Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001).

The new land was discovered on a Thursday. The Prime Minister addressed the nation. “It’s large,” she said, “and damp, and all ours.” She announced that an expedition was already nearing its northern shores.

The expedition waded ashore and raised the flag in a moving ceremony. The new land was covered in seaweed, mud, and the carcasses of fish. It had a distinctive smell.

The discovery of the new land had significant implications for public policy. An inter-departmental working party was set up, with representatives from all affected Crown entities. Change agents were brought in to build a team culture that would be open, proactive, and outcomes-focused.

The Government welcomed tangata whenua participation. Several tribes had fished in the seas displaced by the new land, and consultative hui were quickly arranged. The participation of the Maori Fisheries Commission Te Ohu Kai Moana, and other stakeholders in the quota allocation process, was subject to pending High Court action.

With the cooperation of public and private service providers, an intensive effort began to map the new land. Global Positioning System data revealed that it had a total surface area of 387 ± 2.5 square kilometres, based on best practice assessments. The majority of the new land was only a few metres above sea level, but there was a gradual rise towards a prominent elevation in the southwestern quadrant, which satellite measurements revealed to be some sixty metres in height. A more accurate figure awaited the arrival of a ground party, which promptly left from Base Camp One.

Together with the composition of the All Black midfield, the new land was the prime topic of conversation over the weekend. Callers to talkback radio were unsure of its potential usefulness, but a prominent life sciences company suggested that it would make an ideal testbed for experiments in plant biotechnology.

On Sunday, the nation was treated to live reports from the party sent to investigate the southwestern elevation. The gradual rise previously reported was crowned by a rocky hill, atop which were strewn large blocks of grey stone. The superficial resemblance of these blocks to construction materials excited worldwide interest. Both print and electronic media carried a number of ill-considered and poorly researched stories making allusions to Atlantis, Mu, and/or Lemuria. The Skeptics Society responded with a strongly-worded statement.

The Government acted decisively to quell speculation. An exclusion zone, to be patrolled by all three services, was established around the hill in question. Any party wishing to land in the area was required to have government permission and pay a substantial fee. It was announced that samples from the quarantine zone would be sent to leading overseas laboratories for analysis, and that results were expected in six to eight weeks.

Sharemarket reaction, which had been muted the previous week, was strongly positive when trading opened on Monday, with the tourism, energy, and telecommunications sectors especially buoyant. Fishing industry shares suffered reverses, however, with analysts pointing to the loss of valuable fishing grounds and the uncertain future of several joint venture arrangements.

Other developments on Monday were primarily institutional in character. The Prime Minister announced that a naming rights sponsor was being sought for the new land. Major corporates, breweries, and communications companies had already expressed interest. On a less positive note, plans by the Tourism Board to brand the new land as an eco-tourism destination came under sustained criticism by environmental groups.

To widespread surprise, the new land slipped beneath the sea just after 5am on Tuesday. Loss of life was averted save for two adventurers who had illegally entered the exclusion zone earlier that night to explore the southwestern elevation. Their Zodiac pilot, who escaped, returned with lurid tales of strange lights in the sky and unearthly noises beneath the hill. These accounts were not corroborated, and the Zodiac pilot was subsequently deported to an undisclosed location.

A planned debate on the new land went ahead when Parliament resumed sitting that afternoon, but its character was much altered. The Prime Minister was put on the defensive by persistent questioning and responded with a blistering attack on the Leader of the Opposition. The disappearance was made worse for the Government because subsequent polling showed that the new land had been especially popular in the key North Island 18-45 male demographic.

After a week in which the new land showed no sign of reappearing, the inter-departmental working party was disbanded and the consultative hui cancelled. Fish stocks over the area were reported to be severely depleted, and the fishing industry pressed the Government for a compensation package. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research was commissioned to conduct a bathymetric survey of the newly-restored sea floor.

The new land is commemorated by two Top 20 singles, an “Assignment” documentary, and a projected TV mini-series which has yet to receive New Zealand On Air funding. A leading authority on the uncanny, now hard at work on a book about the new land, has promised to reveal a scandalous cover-up of dramatic new evidence concerning humanity’s place in the Universe. If these claims are substantiated, they may yet revive public interest in the matter.