Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Real Cold War

I did a blog for The Spectator last week about setting Ice Force in the Arctic, but for anyone who missed it, here it is again.

The Cold War produced some of the great classics of British spy fiction. From the gadgets and babes with exotic Eastern European accents of the James Bond books, to the non-stop action of Alistair MacLean or the dark treachery of John Le Carre and the intricate office politics of Len Deighton, it served as the perfect vehicle for just about every type of story a writer could imagine. More scenes were set in the few yards around Checkpoint Charlie than anyone could keep track of.
But now there is a new type of cold war – one that is more literal than metaphorical. The Arctic is perhaps the most compelling region in the world to set a thriller in 2012 – which is why I chose to set my new novel ‘Ice Force’ in the frozen wastelands around the North Pole.
What makes a great location for a thriller? Well, there needs to be intrigue, of course. And conflict as well. The Arctic has plenty of both. The world’s last great untapped reserves of oil lie under the Arctic Ocean – about 25% of the world’s remaining fossil fuels, according to the latest estimates. But who owns it? For the last few hundred years, no one cared very much. There was nothing out there, apart from a few polar bears. Now everyone wants a share. The Russians claim that much of the Arctic is their territory, and have been provocatively planting flags wherever they can. The Americans – via Alaska – claim a chunk. So do the Canadians. And so do the Danes (via Greenland).
And oil, of course, is power in today’s world. Russia is already the largest oil producer in the world, pumping 10.5 million barrels a day. Add together its existing domestic production with all the oil potentially in the Arctic, and the Kremlin would effectively control the world’s energy supply. Nor would it be afraid to use it. Vladimir Putin has already shown he regards oil as just another weapon in big power politics. It is no great surprise then that the race for the Arctic oil has been described as ‘the new great game’.
Next, some hardship helps. The more rugged the terrain the greater the test you are setting for your characters – and the more peril you can put them in. Nowhere in the world is rougher than the Arctic. The temperatures drop to fifty or sixty below zero. Ice forms inside your sleeping bag as you sleep. Water freezes inside its bottles, and engines have to be re-heated bolt by bolt with blow torches before they will start. The ice breaks up, creating ravines where you can fall into the freezing water. It is the most brutal, inhospitable place on earth.
Finally, your setting needs to be different. What readers really want is to be transported somewhere different. To go somewhere they’ve never been before, and may indeed never get to. To be taken to a different world. Easyjet can fly us most places for a few pounds. Not to the North Pole. It really is a completely different place, and one of the pleasures of reading a thriller set there is that you get to learn about the terrain, and how to survive it.
It ticked all the right boxes. The research was fascinating, and an education in itself. The weather is more likely to kill you than your enemy. Nothing works. You need a specially adapted gun, for example. Wearing thick gloves your finger won’t fit into the trigger, but if you touch metal with your bare fingers they will drop off. So you need the right sort of gun (the Swedish Army specialises in them, in case you were wondering). Or else you need to saw off the underside of the trigger. Even then, you need an array of special oils to keep your weapons working. You need to wear night-vision goggles through the long Arctic winter. For half the year, there is practically no light. And you need to watch out for the animals. Polar bears have a great sense of smell, and they are always hungry. They will creep up on you – and their hides are so well insulated, only a few traces of their breath will be visible on your night-vision equipment. If you do get into a scrap with one, though, thump them from the right – polar bears are left-handed, so that is their weaker side.
There North Pole might never become as familiar to thriller readers as Checkpoint Charlie was. But in the next few years it might well become a small genre of its own – and rather like Robert Peary, it is nice to have got there first.