Below Zero by Dan Smith

below zeroCold landscapes enthral the mind in these icy months, but there are no ice queens, lyrical snowy descriptions or frosty ice rinks here. This is a fast-paced, gripping thriller that alludes to Star Wars, involves spider drones, artificial intelligence used for mal purposes, and has a protagonist who is both emotionally engaging and full of wit and charm.

When Zak and his family crash land at Outpost Zero, an Antarctic research base set up to house people who may in the future be the first humans to live on Mars, the power is out and it is as cold and dark inside as out. The people are nowhere to be found, and Zak starts to have visions of things that aren’t there, things that might be connected to something lurking beneath the ice.

The action dips back and forwards between Zak’s present day reality, and the actions of mere hours before, in which Sofia, one of the people housed on the research base, discovered something rather fascinating and dangerous about a substance beneath the ice. The time jumps sharpen and intensify the plot, and lend a satisfying anticipatory buildup to the action.

At about the time of reading, I was also watching Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and the discovery of the deep sea’s hydrothermal vents – perhaps the origins of life on Earth. Smith’s novel ideas timely dip into these vents, with the idea that what Sofia finds deep beneath the ice is alive, and indeed life-giving. His preposterous plot becomes more real, more plausible.

But it’s with the idea of the spider drones that Smith really taps into our current zeitgeist. Zak’s parents are scientists, the inventors of the spider drones that are used on the research base to perform a number of robotic tasks. When the life-giving matter beneath the ice attaches itself to the drones, the artificial intelligence of the drones suddenly isn’t so artificial. But are they a force for good, or for evil?

Smith’s playfulness with artificial intelligence and human’s use of the environment makes sure that although this novel drives home some deep thoughts, the story remains as a thriller should – playful, light, page-turning.

Zak is a warm character – he suffers from a brain tumour, and is accompanied throughout most of the action by his parents and sister, which gives him both a rounding and a humanity as he responds to his parents’ worries, and his sister’s goading. But mainly he’s a lovable character on his own. Thoughtful, daring and very real.

The author also throws in a third point of view – a mysterious character called The Broker, who has nothing but evil intent, although intriguingly enough, he too is shown with family.

And it is through families that Smith views the world. Motivation and ultimate victory comes to those who most care about the consequences their actions have on others. Despite the implausibility of most of the story and the ending, this is a cracking good read, with heart-pounding tension, limitless action and a wonderfully remote and exciting setting.

Top adventure, great fun, and a nod towards our own future. You can buy your own copy here.