By Rob Brunet
The world’s eyes are turning to the Arctic, and none more acutely than James Abel’s. A pseudonym for a journalist with deep experience in far-flung places, Abel is the author of WHITE PLAGUE. The thriller is set in a part of the world largely ignored in geopolitical fiction since Alistair MacLean wrote books like Athabasca and Ice Station Zebra.
Abel’s three decades of research and writing have taken him to the Amazon, the Sudan, the Galapagos, the Maldives, and Somalia—places where he’s encountered “the border between order and anarchy.” That borderland is where he has set the first in a series of thrillers featuring Joe Rush, a Marine doctor tasked with rescuing the crew of the United States Navy’s newest submarine.
The sub has surfaced north of Alaska, on fire, and what Rush discovers is far worse than a nautical accident. The crew are sick and dying, with 103-degree fevers, wracking coughs bringing up frothy blood, and blotched faces and chests along with burns from the fire. The sub is under foreign military threat, and spies are aboard the icebreaker that carries Rush there. If he cannot effect the rescue in secret, he must destroy the sub, because what is happening hidden from public view threatens not only the Arctic but the rest of the world.
“The new Arctic is a character in this novel,” says Abel. As shipping lanes open up, there’s a race for undersea territory among the circumpolar nations. The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (via a self-asserting Greenland) are all staking claims. It’s no wonder. Estimates are roughly twenty per cent of the planet’s discoverable oil fields are under the Arctic Ocean, and the region is already home to the world’s largest diamond mines.
For now, the debate over disputed resource claims under the once frozen ocean is cordial, but that may not last. Previously inaccessible seas are no longer prohibitively remote. Everyone wants a piece of the action. The Chinese are buying up land, and the Russians have identified the Arctic as a theater for potential future conflict.
Fertile ground for an author with a series character like Joe Rush.
Rush is a bio-terror expert, seconded to a secret unit run out of Washington. He’s keenly aware of the moral consequences of the decisions he makes—not just the physical ones. “There’s always a moral component when you make tough choices,” says Abel. But choosing between good and evil is easy. “The toughest choices are between good and good.” And that’s the kind of quandary he sets up for Joe Rush.
If there’s any James Abel in Joe Rush, it’s the way their work takes both men to the planet’s remotest areas. In those places, Abel describes the moral choices as being starker, because no order exists. The difference between the author and the character is that while Abel has always been drawn to those places, he says, “When potentially catastrophic danger pops up, Rush is the guy you send.”
Abel brings us up close and personal to the people impacted by Rush’s actions. In conducting three years of research for a nonfiction book about the Arctic, he spent plenty of time in the north. Some of that was in Barrow, Alaska. He got to know the streets, the homes, the businesses, and the people. Then, in a bizarre twist, he found himself in Rhode Island, at one of the U.S. Navy’s war game facilities.
“I found myself looking at Barrow on Google maps,” he says, seeing the town through a war gamer’s eyes. Suddenly, the town he’d visited as a researcher was being imagined as a setting for something both strategic and dangerous. He’d always wanted to write a thriller. This Arctic context was perfect.
In addition to his time in Barrow and remote settlements via Coast Guard chopper, Abel spent seven weeks on an ice breaker, The Healy. The ship traveled six hundred miles north of Alaska, working alongside Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent. For all its maritime might, the United States is playing catch up in the Arctic. Of its two icebreakers, often only one is operational. Russia, meanwhile has over two dozen, several of them nuclear powered. And it has more new icebreakers under construction than the entire U.S. icebreaking fleet. The situation is so unbalanced, one scenario conceived by U.S. Navy war gamers is that in the event they needed to move U.S. ships from Seattle to Virginia, they’d have to ask the Russians for assistance—something which might prove a little challenging this year or next, were it to come up.
WHITE PLAGUE is not a story about global warming. “There’s no theory that brings the ice back,” says Abel. What he has written is a thriller reflecting current geopolitical pressures, leveraging very real military and scientific potentialities in a story that could happen next summer under current conditions.
“Fiction allows you to write about dangers that have not yet manifested,” the author says. If you follow the headlines on the Arctic, you already know the territory is about to blow open. What James Abel has for you is a taste of what might happen if that process is less than friendly.
James Abel is a pseudonym for Bob Reiss, a New York based author of 20 books and numerous articles in national magazines including Washington Post Magazine, Parade, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone and Readers Digest, most recently on the opening Arctic.
To learn more, please visit his website.