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February 07, 2011

When H.P. Lovecraft and modern science meet beneath the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness scared the bejabbers out of me when I first read it, more years ago than I care to admit. Lovecraft's metier involved establishing a mood of dread, slowly giving way to terror, by not describing that which hid in the shadows. He invented a mythos of immortal beings from another dimension, incomprehensibly ancient and powerful, for whom humanity was of no more significance than a flea on the ass of the Creator. Lovercraft's tales emphasized the size and age of the cosmos, making the concept of infinity frightening, as if we stood on the precipice of a vast, uncaring void.

Back to those Mountains of Madness: First published in 1936, Lovecraft's novella followed the exploits of an expedition to the Antarctic, where an ancient city is discovered beneath the ice.

Let's just say that there are things best left undisturbed under that frozen mantle.

Which brings me to a news story from modern day Antarctica, and a new addition to the Lovecraftian mythos.

First, the news.

Russian scientists are getting ready to break through miles of ice, exposing Lake Vostok to the surface for the first time in millions of years.

With only about 50m left to drill, time is running out for the Russian scientists hoping to drill into Vostok - the world's most enigmatic lake.

Vostok is a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica, hidden some 4,000m (13,000ft) beneath the ice sheet.


"It's like working on an alien planet where no one has been before," Valery Lukin, the deputy head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which oversees the project, told BBC News.

"We don't know what awaits us down there," he said, adding that personnel at the station have been working shifts, drilling 24 hours a day.

But some experts remain concerned that probing the lake's water - thought by some to be isolated from everything else on Earth - could contaminate the pristine ecosystem and cause irreversible damage.

The sub-glacial lake is located underneath the remote Vostok station in Antarctica.

Overlaid by nearly 4km of ice, it has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. Some scientists think the ice cap above and at the edges has created a hydrostatic seal with the surface, preventing lake water from escaping or anything else from getting inside.

And if the Russian team gets through to the pristine waters, they hope to encounter life forms that have never been seen.


Space radar revealed that the sub-glacial body of fresh water was one of the largest lakes in the world - and one of some 150 subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

At 10,000 square km and with depths reaching 800m, it is similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Ontario in North America.

Since the lake has remained sealed off from the rest of the world, scientists estimate that conditions in it have probably remained unchanged for some 15 million years.

For liquid water to exist in Antarctica, glaciologists suggest that the ice cap serves as a giant insulating blanket, able to capture the Earth's geothermal heat to melt the bottom of the ice sheet.

Sealed, cutoff from the rest of the world for 15 million years, perhaps with new lifeforms waiting to be discovered.

What could go wrong?

I give you, A Colder War, a novella by Charles Stross. Set in an alternate timeline, with world history having taken a significant detour in the 1930s, it postulates a world where that expedition to the Mountains of Madness actually took place -- and the implications for the Cold War.

It begins:

Roger Jourgensen tilts back in his chair, reading.

He's a fair-haired man, in his mid-thirties: hair razor-cropped, skin pallid from too much time spent under artificial lights. Spectacles, short-sleeved white shirt and tie, photographic ID badge on a chain round his neck. He works in an air-conditioned office with no windows.

The file he is reading frightens him.

Once, when Roger was a young boy, his father took him to an open day at Nellis AFB, out in the California desert. Sunlight glared brilliantly from the polished silverplate flanks of the big bombers, sitting in their concrete-lined dispersal bays behind barriers and blinking radiation monitors. The brightly coloured streamers flying from their pitot tubes lent them a strange, almost festive appearance. But they were sleeping nightmares: once awakened, nobody -- except the flight crew -- could come within a mile of the nuclear-powered bombers and live.

Looking at the gleaming, bulging pods slung under their wingtip pylons, Roger had a premature inkling of the fires that waited within, a frigid terror that echoed the siren wail of the air raid warnings. He'd sucked nervously on his ice cream and gripped his father's hand tightly while the band ripped through a cheerful Sousa march, and only forgot his fear when a flock of Thunderchiefs sliced by overhead and rattled the car windows for miles around.

He has the same feeling now, as an adult reading this intelligence assessment, that he had as a child, watching the nuclear powered bombers sleeping in their concrete beds.

There's a blurry photograph of a concrete box inside the file, snapped from above by a high-flying U-2 during the autumn of '61. Three coffin-shaped lakes, bulking dark and gloomy beneath the arctic sun; a canal heading west, deep in the Soviet heartland, surrounded by warning trefoils and armed guards. Deep waters saturated with calcium salts, concrete coffer-dams lined with gold and lead. A sleeping giant pointed at NATO, more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.

Project Koschei.

Would you believe that the dark, cold, primordial waters of Lake Volkov play a part in the goings on?

I had just read about the Russians coming close to breaking thought that miles-thick cap when I stumbled across this novella.

Serendipitous. And spooky.

You can read the entire novella online. Please do.

Posted by Mike Lief at February 7, 2011 07:44 PM