We all have to work to live, even if it is an illegal survey for oil in the rapidly melting arctic. Software engineer Isobel needs to eat like everyone, and that’s how she fell into the job that leads her to the most northerly place on our planet.
As part of a weathered crew of sailors, scientists and corporate officers she sails into the ice where their advanced software Proteus will map everything there is to know. A great icebreaker leads their way into the brutal environment, and the days grow longer, time ever more detached, as they pass through the endless white expanse of the ice.
But they are not alone. They have attracted the attention of seals, gulls and a hungry, dedicated polar bear. The journey to plunder one of the few remaining resources the planet has to offer must endure the ravages of the ice, the bear and time itself.
This is what we find when we travel – Always North – a profound meditation on our consumption of the world, and the perception of time. For fans of Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, only at the farthest reaches of the world can we see the truths closest to our minds.
I'm a short story writer and novelist and live in my native Edinburgh.
Nothing is Heavy, my first novel was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award 2013.
My first collection of short stories, The Way Out was published by Freight Books and was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2015, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015, and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016.
My second novel, Always North, is due for publication in October 2019 from Unsung Stories.
This is the perfect novel for those who enjoy desolate landscapes and post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
Isobel, a software engineer, accepts a job aboard a research vessel trailing an icebreaker into the North. The novel has evocative descriptions of the wilderness that surrounds the ship and captures both the freedom and threat of being so cut off from civilization. The tension builds at an even pace as the mission is threatened by sabotage, environmental pressure, and a polar bear that appears to be stalking the ship.
There are interesting characters (a gruff sea-captain who borders on a stereotype but never becomes one, a shifty corporate stooge, a potential love interest) and a likeable protagonist. Isobel is a young woman intrigued by adventure, who is self-confident and unapologetic about her stance on her relationships and her job. The novel broaches topical issues, such as sexual politics for women in STEM and whether all humans should feel collective guilt for environmental destruction, without distracting from the plot.
The novel does not take place entirely on the voyage, though I almost wish it did. The second half of the book, while incorporating flashbacks of the ship, carries forward the same tension and fatalistic tone as the first, but in an entirely new setting. In truth, the second half is less engaging than the first, in that the plot becomes far more fantastical (in a technological sense) than the very grounded journey in the first half. Yet, it never stops being engrossing. Humanity’s descent is as believable as it is tragic.
There are only a few issues which keep the novel from becoming utterly fantastic. The cause of a major event is never fully explained, and I found the second half meandered a little. The latter could also be because I enjoyed the sections on the ship so much.
By far the most impressive aspect of the novel is the writing. Vicki Jarrett exceptional pairing of elegiac prose with finely focused details makes what could have been a tedious journey (people travelling on a ship in the middle of a frozen wasteland with ever-present sunlight) beautiful and almost transformative.
'Always North' is an unusual case of me purchasing a book new, as it wasn't in the library and there were good reasons to consider it promising. The Guardian's best sci-fi of 2019 brought the title to my attention, but I'd already read Vicki Jarrett's first novel Nothing is Heavy and knew she's a local Edinburgh author. I enjoyed the crime caper of Nothing is Heavy, however the topic of 'Always North' is tailored to my interests: the impact of climate change in the Arctic. The book opens in 2025 with a seismic engineer called Isobel setting off on a shady corporate expedition to survey for oil during the polar summer. The narrative shifts between this and the climate change-ravaged world twenty years later. Both are evoked vividly and intensely. I found the eerie atmosphere on the polar expedition especially memorable. The narration is full of sensory detail. A polar bear is an excellent supporting character, both threatened and threatening. In fact, Jarrett is very good at showing the parallels of human threats to the environment and vice versa throughout. The pace is excellent.
The plot thread picked up twenty years later didn't work quite so well for me as the 2025 expedition.
Nonetheless, this is a really good climate change novel which sustains a sense of tension and dread impressively, therefore deserves five stars. Jarrett has written the kind of fiction Amitav Ghosh called for in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable: it uses individual narratives to demonstrate the uncanny scale of climate change. Despite finding 'Always North' extremely compelling, though, I did put it aside for a short while for something lighter. There is little optimism about the future to be found here. It is still a suitable lockdown read, just one to break up with less existentially terrifying reading matter if necessary.
I went into this thinking it would be a bit like Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, partly due to the cover, but also due to the prospect of a young woman going on a dangerous expedition into the unknown, and the resulting ecological devastation she witnesses firsthand. But that's about where the similarities end. Izzy is a restless young woman with a middling sense of morality who rationalizes illegally surveying the protected Arctic wilderness for her corporate bosses with the thought that someone else would do it if she didn't. She embarks on the Polar Horizon with a crew that includes wary Captain Bjornsen, sexy second officer Jules, her partner in tech and occasionally bed Grant, and the irritating pencil pusher Max, sent by corporate to breathe down everyone's necks about profitability.
As they head further and further north through the Arctic wastes, their path seems to mirror that of a polar bear that appears to be much older than it should be. The polar bear can't possibly be tracking them... could it? As the intensity of near-endless daylight begins to take its toll on Izzy, the Proteus programming she and Grant have set up for the expedition begins to malfunction, setting off a chain reaction of events that will send a bloodstained Polar Horizon racing for the safety of southern waters.
Years later, Izzy is barely ekeing out a living in a world devastated by global warming when Grant shows up, offering her a job. Out of desperation, Izzy accepts. And then things get weird.
Always North is a fascinatingly constructed novel that deals with environmental collapse in a way reminiscent of J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World, but with an audacious literary technique that I'm hard pressed to find comparisons to (tho this may speak to my idiosyncratic reading habits that gravitate more towards story than art.) Vicki Jarrett does with her narrative what figure skaters do with ice, cutting graceful, nearly symmetrical loops in their media for an effortless beauty that belies the strength behind it. Much like I felt with the afore-mentioned Annihilation, this is a book that grows lovelier in the remembering, tho for very different reasons. The ending of Always North is both unsettling and beautiful, incomplete yet strangely perfect. I want to know more, but any more writing would ruin the plot's delicate balance. I will say that this book hearkened back, for me, to New Wave science fiction of the 1960s & 70s, exploring climate change and the permeable nature of memory with a stylistic boldness you don't often find in today's market. Ms Jarrett is truly one to watch.
Climate fiction matters. The world changes and normal doesn’t exist anymore, just ask my grandparents ;) I believe powerful fiction can impact readers’ behaviors stronger than the raw scientific data or orders and prohibitions. Subtlety works better than brute force. At least for some.
Always North is an ambitious book about the collapsing environment, our accountability, mysterious workings of mind and memory, and the nature of time. It’s set over two time-frames and settings: an oil survey vessel in the Arctic Ocean in 2025 and the Scottish Highlands in 2045.
Isobel, a software engineer, joins a team surveying the Arctic seabed for oil deposits. Along the way, the ship draws the attention of a mysterious polar bear whose appearances will give you goose-bumps. The journey ends in a bloody disaster. The story makes a time jump to show the environmentally ravaged world in which jobs are in short supply. Like most people, Isobel is struggling to make ends meet. To her, the world went apeshit.
‘Just more and worse of everything. Riots. Gangs on the increase. More people, not enough food or shelter to go around. The government too stretched or too preoccupied with saving their own skins to do anything about it.’
Isobel changed. A lot. When we first met her, she was self-centered and living to the fullest on her own terms. Her older self is harder and more conscious. When one of her old crew members (and lovers) shows up and offers her a job, she accepts. With the help of advanced technology, she revisits her memories of the expedition to discover what and how went wrong.
This part of the story, with its flashback segments, has a surreal quality. Jarrett’s writing conveys the intensity of near-endless daylight and bleakness of the frozen wasteland with stunning and evocative descriptions. She controls the narrative with clear but impactful writing that awed me. Her prose is elegant, subtle and compacted. It gives the first half of Always North the velocity of a thriller. The second half of the novel experiments with the structure and can feel meandering to some readers.
Jarrett ends her tale with an incomplete yet touching ending I found perfect. She combines elements of eco-horror, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic dystopia in something fresh and unique. Not an easy book to follow, but I won’t forget about it anytime soon.
Now that was pleasantly surprising. It's not often that I pick up a book simply because it looks like 'my kind of thing', probably because 'my kind of thing' is pretty obscure and easily confused. But difficult journeys to the pole? SF? A smattering of environmental apocalypse? Bring it on. And then, to help the enjoyment along, this actually reminded me in many ways of the sort of SF that I was reading in 70s: authors like Christopher Priest and Richard Cowper, DG Compton perhaps (A Dream of Wessex, Chronocules etc). Modernised throughout by a cynical and refreshing female perspective that initially grates but makes sense in the end. There's a hint of dragging it out as the climax approaches but the flashes of circularity are extremely effective (you'll know what I mean). All in all, excellent. Cover's not good though. That should be improved.
Halfway through, so this could still fall apart....but at this point, I'm thinking, "Wow! Why haven't I ever heard of Vicki Jarrett before? This is some of the best writing I've ever read." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Well, it definitely didn't fall apart (although the world did). Yes, there was some weird stuff going on in the second half, but you'd have to expect that when the Earth is coming apart at the seams, wouldn't you?
4.5 stars. Powerful, disturbing, and extremely well written. I'm going to read more from Vicki Jarrett.
I found this one interesting. I didn’t much like the writing style at first, then the plot overtook me and I couldn’t put it down, but then I found the sections after it all went pear-shaped - about 20 years later I think - a little disjointed ... and I never quite worked out what was going on at Northolt, or what happened right at the end. Still, an enjoyable read.
Grim pre- and post-apocalyptic story of a woman engineer trying to get by, first as a programmer on a dodgy arctic survey, and then as a survivor of an ongoing global collapse. Are they related? More scifi than horror, and more actual novel than either. Particularly good on flavors of male antisocial geekdom, with three or more strains well characterized.
First off: this has a fantastic cover. I mean, just look at it! Outstanding.
Anyway. I reviewed this for Strange Horizons, and the full review will be up there soon. But briefly... I really enjoyed this. There's some very interesting ideas here, and if some of the science was not all that convincing, the grim exploration of corruption in science was well worth the read. More importantly, the tragic, glorious descriptions of the polar bear at the centre of the narrative... even if I didn't enjoy that narrative as much as I did, the prose was justification enough, as was the imagery. Everything regarding that bear was absolutely spot-on, and I will no doubt be rereading this book for years to come, wallowing in the beauty of it. It was enormously affecting, and now I want to go out and find everything else Jarrett has ever written and devour it.
One of the best books I've read lately. Vicki Jarrett writing is superb and I'm wondering why we haven't heard more of this author before. The book starts with the journey of a scientific ship to the north pole, its goal to map the ocean floor and sell that info to oil exploring companies. The first part of the book, the boat trip to north pole, give us exactly that, in a very interesting way even if not much was happening. On the following parts the book keeps turning the table around and put us in another very different perspective. Can't say much more without spoiling the story. A solid 4 star. Recommended.
I felt quite discombobulated as I finished this book. I really enjoyed the writing, but I struggled with the story, or lack of any explanations or resolution. When we suddenly left one timeline for another, I was confused and really disorientated. And the weird stuff at Northolt I just found confusing. I definitely found the writing style engaging and appreciated the diary-style viewpoint. But I was ultimately frustrated by the lack of any hint at what the h*** happened / was happening.
I'd give 5 stars for the quality of writing but 2-3 for the story (or lack of it).
Great cover, beautiful cover.. the sections that take place in the Arctic were fascinating and tense. Wonderfully written. Things got muddy when we jumped to the future and the story never really found it’s footing again. Would have preferred an exploration of the mystery of what occurred on the polar journey rather than the mad science mumbo jumbo of the second half at northolt. regardless I enjoyed the journey and appreciate what the author was attempting
You know, it wasn't an unpleasant reading experience. The story, setting, and characters were quite interesting. The polar bears were fabulous! It's just that... I seriously have no idea what happened in this book.
I really enjoyed this, particularly the sections set in the Arctic. A really clever employment of the polar bear and its significance in Inuit folklore. Also a pretty powerful (and scary) depiction of environmental apocalypse.
Interesting subject; a necessary topic for the age of climate crisis we live in. In terms of style, however, it lacks something - character voices aren't distinctive, the world building isn't nuanced enough for my taste. Not a bad book!
This is a stunning novel which is totally in tune with global concerns over the climate emergency. Isobel, the main character, is practical and pragmatic and completely authentic in her need to get on with her own life. Yes, she has a conscience that occasionally troubles her about the likely impact of the arctic survey she's going to be taking part in, but her own life and needs come first, just like the rest of us in the real world.
Vicki Jarrett's prose style is sharp and direct. Isobel's voice peals in our ears and her down-to-earth needs are physical and visceral. So when she becomes disoriented during day after day of 24/7 arctic daylight, we begin to encounter her fragility. Then she's faced with sudden, calamitous change, on a grand scale. How? Who made it happen? If we could change things - if we could make the clock turn back - would we? When it comes to it, what responsibility will Isobel - will we - take for life on this planet?
Don’t get it twisted, I liked the book, thought the storytelling was well executed - but I felt that the books main power was adrift in the artic, isolated, where strange things happen - with the switch from this location I felt all the tension that had been built masterfully was lost each time we ventured away from the location and characters and the polar bear! Full review coming to storgy soon...
I loved this book! There was something cold and mysterious at its heart, just like the polar landscape it conveyed. The atmosphere is so tense and menacing, I was gripped all the way through. The way that the author moves through time is so well handled and the writing is fluid and evocative of places on earth I have never been, or don't exist (yet). Highly recommended.