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Land Blinks and Water Skies

Last week I finished reading Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica's Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton. This is a gripping account of a Belgian/Norwegian crew surviving an inadvertent over-wintering trapped in the ice near the South Pole and the madness (and physical ailments) that comes with it -- I highly recommend it. Even if non-fiction isn't your forte, this reads like a thriller, as our heroes are doomed from the start. (No more spoilers, I promise.)


from "Marooned!" by Joshua Hammer, New York Review of Books, August 19, 2021

As with all books, however, there is the delight in finding the little gems tucked between the plot. Sancton doesn't drown the book in nautical know-how but he does sprinkle fascinating facts throughout, and then makes them literary. Here's an example:

"To the seasoned polar explorer, the sky could be as informative as it was to the astronomer, but not for the same reasons. In fact, it helped if it was overcast. It then became a canvas on which an image of the sea was projected by reflection, like an inverted map. In addition to ice blinks, dark blots called water skies indicated the presence of open water underneath."

"Ice blinks" and "land blinks" are visited earlier, with Sancton explaining these are atmospheric brightness seen from the sea over distant snow-covered land in arctic regions. Looking to the sky for hints of what lies below? This sent my mind sprawling to all the sci-fi implications -- novel navigation schemes in worlds of nothing but ice and sea, etc etc etc.


And the terms! Just their names alone are beautiful. Take fata morgana -- basically a fancy way to say mirage. Actually, it's Italian for Morgan le Fay (Morgan the Fairy), a sorceress of medieval legends.


I mean, who knew atmospheric terminology could be so fantastical? (Meteorologists? What else are you keeping from us?) One last quote:

"Mirages, fogbows, sun dogs, mock moons, and other tricks of the light were so common the men learned not to trust their eyes."

Now I love me a good sun dog, and can understand what a fogbow is, but a mock moon? I have just stumbled on about five titles for potential SFF short stories or speculative poems. Reading non-fiction truly is fantastic fodder for the fiction writer. Next up? The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Have a good week.

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