Sean Williams

The Adventures of AntarcticaSean Part Zero: Applying

posted on 14 Nov 2017 at 1:04 am

“Continuing” from Part Five: Aurora #2

I’ve just returned from GenreCon 2017 in Brisbane, where I gave a plenary address about applying for my Antarctica Fellowship. I’ve written and talked previously about the experience itself, but not so much about how I got there, and how you might do the same. Below, you’ll find the text of my address if you’d like more information.

GenreCon itself was amazing – an incredible honour to be on the program with Nalini Singh, Delilah S Dawson, Garth Nix, Amy Andrews, Angela Slatter, Daniel Findlay, Claire Coleman, Emma Viskic, Brooke Maggs and many others. Wonderful also to be in the company of writers proudly waving the genre flag. I’ve come home with a list of books to read as long as my arm!

“An Alien in Antarctica”

On February 15th this year, I was transported to an alien land, a land inhabited only by the hardiest of creatures. The few humans who live there huddle in cramped, enclosed habitats; if exposed to the environment, they would quickly die. These hardy individuals import everything they need to survive, except water–such as fuel, food, clothes, and medical supplies. In places, the bedrock of this ancient land is buried under miles of ancient ice, yet it never rains. The one thing you’ll find in abundance there is wind.

I’m talking, of course, about Antarctica. The pictures cycling behind me capture some of my experiences on that journey–from departure by plane from Hobart through to my return. Instead of discussing the highlights of my trip, what I thought I’d do is outline how I got there, because I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room who has dreamed of visiting the great southern land.

I first entertained that dream in 1982, after seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing. Based on John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” it’s a story with impressive pedigree, inspiring multiple adaptations, including several films, a computer game, a tie-in by Alan Dean Foster and numerous other fictional homages, graphic novels, even a board game.

The tie-in novel’s depiction of Antarctica as the “driest desert on Earth” struck a powerful chord with the young me. I knew I had to go there, somehow.

The more I read, however, about the impact of Antarctic tourism on this largely pristine environment, I began to despair of ever making it. Moreover, I had no skills, such as carpentry, cooking, or dentistry, that might prove useful on an expedition. No would need a nerdy writer, would they?

Only in 1995, when I met Kim Stanley Robinson, who was himself on the way to Antarctica to research a book, did I learn that Australia funds an arts program that regularly sends artists to the ice. Immediately, I began looking into this possibility.

The obvious place to start was the Australian Antarctica Division.

The AAD is a division of the Department of the Environment and Energy. It’s responsible for the, “Advancement of Australia’s strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in the Antarctic by protecting, administering and researching the region” (to quote from the website). It manages Australia’s presence in the Australian Antarctic Territory, and other related areas. It’s a huge operation–vastly complicated and vastly expensive, and arguably the only such operation in Australian history to have enjoyed constant bipartisan support.

Every year since 1984, the AAD has sent at least one artist to Antarctica–including writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, and more. Anyone can apply, as long as you meet the criteria.

What are those criteria? One must be “gifted in communication”, and you have to submit a specific project to attach to your Fellowship: they won’t just send you down to gawp at the penguins.

The project must align with the Arts Fellowship’s aims:

to increase Australian and international awareness and appreciation of Antarctica, the sub-Antarctic, and the Australian Antarctic Program, with a focus on communicating within Australia and internationally:

  • the activities of the Australian Antarctic Program;
  • the importance of the unique Antarctic and sub-Antarctic natural environment;
  • human stories and endeavours;
  • Australia’s historical Antarctic and sub-Antarctic legacy; and
  • the international treaty history, values and cooperation that shape Antarctica’s geopolitical significance.

I first applied in 1998, around the time my third book came out. My basic pitch was to write a novel about an alien fugitive crash-landing in the middle of a multinational squabble over oil deposits buried under the ice. It featured Lake Vostok, the largest underground freshwater lake in the world, which was big in the news at the time. So, both topical and unashamedly genre.

I was one of six artists shortlisted. That year, they sent three people to Antarctica, but I wasn’t one of them. Close but no cigar.

I would’ve applied again the following year, except I moved in with my girlfriend, sold some Star Wars novels, and suddenly everything became a whole lot more interesting at home. With trips south lasting some months at a time, it just wasn’t possible to get away.

My dream of going to Antarctica slipped back to being just a dream, but I never entirely gave up on it.

In 2015, two significant developments brought it back to life. The first was experiencing snow for the very first time. (Hey, I’m from Adelaide.) The wonder of it swept away any slight concerns about not liking the weather in Antarctica. This was brilliant; I wanted more.

The other development was the building of a runway near Casey Station. Suddenly, short trips were entirely feasible.

So in 2016, I decided to apply a second time, with a different idea entirely. The project I came up with was “to research and write a novel called Lone Soul Standing that depicts a young Douglas Mawson, with Scott and Shackleton, meeting a [Martian] survivor of The War of the Worlds during a delayed rendition of the Discovery Expedition.”

So, a counterfactual, since Mawson, Scott and Shackleton never voyaged south together; also, Martians don’t exist. The title comes from Mawson’s diary – April 9th, 1912 – in which he compares being exposed to Antarctica weather to being on the surface of Mars. In my application I defined my audience, provided letters of support, and of course made the obligatory point that there’s no substitute for being there.

I passed the first round, then wrote a more detailed application for the second. Then I waited. And waited, and waited. Everything was delayed because the Minister for the Environment has to sign off on the committee’s recommendation, and this took place in an election year.

And even when I found out, I had to wait before telling anyone, because then I had to pass my medical–the most thorough series of examinations I have ever endured–and find a spot on the expedition schedule. Originally, I was scheduled to take the Aurora Australis to Davis research station on the first resupply mission, but eventually I was bumped to a flight to Casey, late in the season. One thing I quickly learned is that nothing goes to plan when Antarctica is involved.

Only when all that was settled could I make it public and begin getting ready in earnest.

It’s no easy prospect. The AAD takes strict measures to avoid biological contamination, so I had to jump through several hoops in terms of what I could and couldn’t take. Another factor was that, although all the expenses relating to the trip to and from Hobart are covered by the AAD–including transport, clothing, food, etc–my medical and flights to Hobart, plus accommodation there, amounting to several thousand dollars, were all covered by me. (I believe that’s changed now, thanks to a new partnership with ANAT, the Australian Network for Arts and Technology.) But there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome.

And how was it, actually being down there? Amazing, of course. For a thorough account of my experiences, I invite you to (further) visit the blog section of my website, where you’ll find lots of anecdotes, more photos, and links.

Suffice it to say, the experience was everything I dreamed of, and more. Among a close-knit community of people just as much in love with Antarctica as I was, I found inspiration not just for Lone Soul Standing, but for many other projects as well.

A personal highlight was watching John Carpenter’s The Thing in the station cinema–thus coming full circle, from inspiration to reality. Then, when I came home, I wrote a short story that picks up where The Thing left off. Called “The Winter Gardener”, you can read it for free at Daily Science Fiction.

AAD’s Antarctica Arts Fellowship is an amazing opportunity for all writers, not just to stretch yourself personally and creatively, but also to reach an entirely new audience. Since my Fellowship was announced, I’ve guest-posted, presented, and been interviewed all across the country. It’s one of the biggest endeavours of my career to date, and is ongoing.

I urge anyone interested to give it a go, particularly if you write speculative fiction. It’s not possible right now to take a trip to another planet, but through the AAD’s Antarctica Arts Fellowship program, you might be able to do the next best thing.