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Acclaimed South African journalist Gus Silber was kind enough to post this review of SPIRE online recently. What I love about it is that he really gets what attracted me to the South Pole setting – the extreme weather, the appalling isolation, and the sheer hostility of the environment. I also like the issue he raises about the differences between thriller novels and horror novels, and why SPIRE belongs in both categories:
I am reading: SPIRE, by Fiona Snyckers. I am reading it in the manner one reads books these days, in moments stolen from the routine, in streams of light cascading down the screen of a device that is designed to bridge our divides and connect us.
But the smartphone, in practise, distracts us; it seals us off from our environments, confining us to our own private worlds, our own secret interests and obsessions. This makes it the ideal delivery mechanism for the drug of reading, and I must admit, on this book, I am hooked.
I have been reading it while waiting for the kettle to boil, while walking the dog in the park, while sitting with my little number-slip in the queue at the bank. The chapters are short, and they always end on a note of high tension, a catch of breath, a quickening of the pulse.
Just one more, I say to myself, and then I thumb by reflex to the next, and before I know it, it is midnight, and I am reading under the covers, trapped in the icy white glow of wanting to know what will become of Dr Caroline Burchell.
She is the surgeon and virologist, wintering in the savage beauty of the Antarctic at a sprawling, high-tech base run by the South Pole International Research Establishment: SPIRE.
There are some 50 people at the base, and she alone has access to the sealed biohazard chamber, where she plays host to a menagerie of invisible organisms, creatures of the plague, shipped here in cylinders to be harvested as vaccines against themselves.
Then something strange and horrible happens, and in just a few pages of contagion, everyone but Caroline succumbs to a series of exotic viral infections.
SPIRE is billed as a thriller, but it runs darker and colder than that, to become a tale of primal, existential terror: the terror of being alone, and then, worse than that, the terror of realising you are not alone.
There is one scene in particular, where Caroline steps outside the base, into the blinding, disorienting white, and is then unable to get back in: the heavy doors have been shut against her, whether by accident, malfunction, human agency or some alien biological force.
This happens now and again in my dreams – the clammy sense of being unable to find my way into or out of the maze of a building – and once it happened for real, when I got lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the Brutalist UNISA building after dark.
So I felt for Caroline, marooned on the edge of nowhere, all her scientific knowledge and courage and resourcefulness rendered null in the face of the void, but forgive me if I worried too about the other sentient creature she had left behind at the base. The cat.
Yes, there is a cat, a deliberate homage to Jonesey in the first Alien movie, just as SPIRE pays its debt to the Thing by telling us in the opening sentence that it is a favourite movie trilogy on base.
This only confirms my feeling that SPIRE belongs firmly in the horror genre: “Thriller” doesn’t do it justice. Thrillers just thrill us, but horror is metaphor, and here the subtext is the exile of the self, in the frozen emotional wasteland of our technological era. Well, that’s how I read it, especially late at night, when the world is cold outside and quiet within.
SPIRE is a novel of apocalypse, not just as in the end of the world, but as in The End of the World, because that is where it is set, as far south as you can possibly go before completely losing your way.
But as bleak as it may sound, this is a very humanist tale of resilience and survival, and Snyckers counterpoints the cold with her warm, breezy, perfectly measured writing.
She also injects a strata of clinical, technical data into the telling, and it is so rich in detail, that you could pretty much use this book as a survival manual if you ever get stuck at the South Pole. Which is a comfort to know.
There was one environmental revelation that gave me such a jolt, that I had to switch apps to Google: because of the total lack of humidity in Antarctica, fire at the base is an even greater threat to survival than snow and ice. Here is what the poet Robert Frost has to say on the subject:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.This book gave me chills, and not just for the iciness of its sub-zero setting, but for what it has to say about the human spirit. Even in the most hostile and alienating of conditions, it finds a way to rise, it finds a way to soar. It finds a way to build the spire.