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Sly, Sinister 'Aurorarama': An Arctic Utopia In Peril

The North Pole has long been more a place of fable and fantasy than a solid place to plant a flag. Unlike its sturdy and stable twin the South Pole, the North is built on constantly shifting fields of ice, so the bit of ground you label the pole today might drift five miles away soon after. No wonder so many of the stories centered on the North Pole -- Hollow Earth theories, the tales of lost Edenic paradise, and, um, Santa Claus -- survived for hundreds of years. How do you know they're not true? That the proof didn't slide over the horizon just as you stepped forward?

Parisian professor Jean-Christophe Valtat is obviously well versed in the extensive North Pole mythology -- his many epigraphs quote from centuries of it. Out of these stories he builds New Venice, an early 20th century almost-Utopia established deep in the Arctic Circle. It's an almost-Utopia because the city has been hijacked from its original settlers by a sinister council and its (very well dressed) henchmen, the Gentlemen of the Night, who ostracize the Inuit and Scavengers (a polar version of the Untouchable caste) and crack down on the city's nightlife. A small number of citizens start to formulate plans to restore New Venice to its founding principles of fairness and inclusion. The radical, anonymous pamphlet A Blast on the Barren Land has been circulating, calling for revolution, and it is not a good omen when a sled carrying a woman's corpse clutching a mirror with a secret message shows up outside town. Then there are the drugs (snowcaine, Letheon, boilers), the mysterious black airship that quietly hangs over the city, the woman who stopped time for a little bit, the mad Russian bomber, and the magician's assistant with a star field tattooed on her back.

Valtat enhances his text with Inuit words, relying on their wonderful specificity, like a philosopher throwing around compound German terms. (Qarrtsiluni: "the time when something is about to explode in the dark." Ingersarvik: "meant something like 'Humping Place.' ") The detail extends to the time period -- it's set in 1908 -- with Victorian scientists, anarchists and explorers. It was a big age, with glamorous clothing and a sense of worlds to be conquered, and it suits Valtat's ambitions.

What saves Aurorarama from being too dense and overwhelming is the writer's obvious joy for working with the material. The sense of utter uniqueness and the madcap world-building never capsizes the story of revolution and resistance. Rather, it entrances and delights. You could spend years picking apart the sly references and the particular myths, poems, novels and songs that inspired Valtat, or you can simply enjoy it for the experience. Valtat is making his American debut in a big way -- his novella 03 was published in June by Farrar Straus & Giroux -- and with his remarkable enthusiasm and bravery, it's completely possible he'll conquer the world.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessa Crispin