Alistair Maclean… an author unparalleled in his genre; an author who is unmatched in suspense thrillers; An author who has remained unmatched despite the increase in fiction writers in modern times. We are spoiled for choice nowadays in almost every sphere of writing, from non-fiction to fiction – good quality books at that. Despite this plethora of options, every so often, the mind turns to the famous Alistair Maclean’s books – a connect that has not weakened despite the competition. You just can’t forget the charm of his books, and their everlasting allure. Let us today look at one his classics just to remind ourselves of his brilliance, and to savour a trip down memory lane. My personal favourite among his books is the book “Ice Station Zebra”, a book which amply demonstrates all the qualities that Alistair Maclean was famous for.
A meteorological station in the Arctic Circle gets gutted by a crippling fire. The survivors call for help, starting an urgent dash to the Arctic Circle to rescue the hapless survivors from certain death. This seemingly simple task is complicated by the circumstances – primarily the fact that the station is based on an ice floe in the Arctic Circle, and is unapproachable by sea, as it is surrounded by huge ice floes going 100-200 feet in depth. Air approach is also rendered impossible by low visibility conditions, ice storms and inhospitable terrain. The only hope is a state of the art US submarine that can stay underwater for indefinite periods of time. Just think: the submarine can reach the approximate location of the Ice Station; but how does it surface? All above it are endless ice floes without a single stretch of water. You can’t smash through the ice which is anything upto 200 feet in depth. Furthermore, if you do find an open lead in the ice, how do you locate the precise location of the Weather Station? Ice Floes tend to float on water; so the location where the station was first set up in terms of Latitude and Longitude would have changed, as the ice floe on which it was made will have floated to a new location. The survivors are in no condition to give their position, having no access to equipment. Radio Location techniques require radio communication from the survivors, who are operating a battery operated radio set with the batteries nearly run down. The situation seems virtually impossible… the book tell the story of how the US team survives all odds to locate the station.
Further complications are in store: a gentleman effects entry into the US Submarine on the strength of a recommendation from both the US and UK governments, with specific orders to the US Naval Team. The Naval Team is given to believe that the Weather Station is in reality a UK advanced military installation with state of the art satellite equipment. This story is admittedly false, a pre-fabrication that is made up by this gentleman on the spur of the moment. Who is this man? How has he got 2 governments to back him so totally as to authorize entry into one of the most secret US Naval Submarines? How has he got these governments to pass an order authorizing him complete charge of the mission? And why are there constant problems, threats and dangers confronting the US submarine on its rescue attempt? Why is the ship seemingly hurtling from one problem to the next?
The book is a class apart as it merges 2 different genres: a rescue attempt against the elements of the weather and the caprices of nature on the one hand, with a spy thriller on the other. These twin themes are intertwined throughout the book, which make for enthralling reading. The rescue attempt has been chronicled in stunning detail and will keep you glued to the book on its own, without the aid of the spy story that is running concurrent to this theme. So much so, that for the most part the rescue attempt becomes the main theme and the spy story becomes the secondary storyline. This is corrected only in the end of the book when the curtains are drawn, and the plot revealed. The background development is awe-inspiring, with descriptions of the Arctic region, the ice storms, and weather, the underwater period being attended to in breathtaking detail. Such is the power of the prose that you actually visualize the elements in front of your eyes: you can actually see it in your mind. The author has excelled, he has surpassed his own abilities in this book with the power of his description. This is vital as it keeps you glued to the pages while the spy story is kept in abeyance till the finding of the survivors.
The author’s command over all things sea-faring is well known, as he himself was in the Royal Navy. This is evident in the section of the submarine voyage. This is also evident in descriptions of the sea and diving scenes. But the background development of arctic circle, the weather, the arctic climate will enable a deeper respect and understanding of what makes Alistair Maclean so famous as well as give the reader a glimpse of what that area must be like. His use of wry humour is places where you least expect also is a beauty of behold, as it relieves the tension, changes the reader’s mood: all this without slackening the relentless pace of the story. All in all, this is one of the best Alistair Maclean books ever: page turning, relentless with breathtaking detail, suspense and tremendous command over the subject. The book is exceedingly well-researched, gives us an insight of one of the most inhospitable regions of earth, tells a superb story that is beautifully intertwined with a classic spy thriller come who-dun-it. I would rate this book 5 stars. In fact, I rate this book as one of the best books in my collection – spanning the entire range of fiction and non-fiction books. It is easily one of the 10 best books I have ever read…