Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (1963)

In the year Len Deighton published his second spy novel, Horse Under Water, and Ian Fleming his 11th, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MacLean published his 10th thriller, Ice Station Zebra. Reading MacLean against Deighton brings out their relative merits and shortcomings.

Where Deighton is brief and clipped to the point of obscurity, MacLean is explicit and obvious to the point of repetitiveness and diffuseness. Where Deighton gives situations in a phrase, MacLean takes pages, chapters.

Heavily factual

The first fifty pages of Ice Station Zebra consist of the first person narrator, Dr Carpenter, being given a tour of the US nuclear submarine Dolphin, and meeting the impeccably dressed, disciplined and intelligent crew. He is immensely respectful of them and their unflappable captain, Swanson. Maybe he actually was shown round a US nuclear sub and is returning the favour. It is almost a Sunday supplement article more than a fiction, with page after page of boys’ own technical detail, like a Top Gear special.

Hansen said thoughtfully: ‘Fifteen feet of ice is a helluva lot of ice. And that ice will have a tamping effect and will direct 90 per cent of the explosive force down the way. You think we can blow a hole through fifteen feet of ice, captain?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Swanson admitted.
‘Nobody ever tried to do this before?’ I asked.
‘No. Not in the U.S. Navy, anyway.’
‘Aren’t the underwater shock waves liable to damage the Dolphin?’ I asked.
‘If they do, the Electric Boat Company can expect a pretty strong letter of complaint. We shall explode the warhead electronically about 1,000 yards after it leaves the ship – it has to travel eight hundred yards anyway before a safety device unlocks and permits the warhead to be armed. We shall be bows-on to the detonation and with a hull designed to withstand the pressures this one is, the shock effects should be minimal.’ (Ch 4)

Not even dialogue as exposition, more dialogue as prolonged technical manual into which a slender sliver of ‘plot’ is occasionally inserted. Reading this book you learn a lot about all aspects of underwater navigation as well as a large amount of information about Arctic conditions, the behaviour of ice packs and so on. Thoroughly researched. All research on display.

Verbose

Where Deighton conveys a situation in the briefest possible number of words or sentences, Maclean piles on the agony to a level of obviousness and beyond.

For the most part, standing as we were on the bridge twenty feet above the level of the ice – the rest of the Dolphin might never have existed as far as the eye could tell – we were above this billowing ground-swell of ice particles; but occasionally the wind gusted strongly, the spicules lifted, drumed domonaically against the already ice-sheathed staroard side of the sail, drove against the few exposed inches of our skin with all the painfully stinging impact of a sand-blaster held at arm’s length; but unlike a sand-blaster, the pain-filled shock of those spear-tipped spicules was only momentary, each wasp-like sting carried with it its own ice-cold anaesthetic and al surface sensation was quickly lost. Then the wind would drop, the furious rattling on the sail would fade and in the momentary contrast of near-silence we could hear the stealthy rustling as of a million rats advancing as the ice-spicules brushed their blind way across the iron-hard surface of the polar cap. The bridge thermometer stood at -21° F. -53° of frost. If I were a promoter interested in developing a summer holiday resort, I thought, I wouldn’t pay very much attention to this place. (Ch 4)

Where Deighton has highly-worked smart similes, MacLean has a peculiar kind of laboured jokiness, as in that last sentence. Cringeworthy, but peripheral to the core purposes of the text: a) technical expertise b) physical extremity c) intense suspense.

Plots

On the plus side, where Deighton’s plots are often difficult to follow, MacLean’s are very obvious. Although there are twists and turns in the plots, and the narrator generally turns out to be different to what he seems in the first half of the text, and there are further revelations down the line, these revelations, when they come, are fully explained and worked through for the reader. Not so in Deighton where it is often difficult to figure out what the plot is even about!

So, in Ice Station Zebra, a British government weather station high up in the Arctic has suffered a catastrophic fire and is sending out pitiful mayday signals. The narrator, Dr Carpenter, arrives at the US naval base with authority from the highest level to be carried to the base to rescue the survivors. For the first hundred pages or so there is textbook level of detail about the working of a nuclear submarine, about sonar and ice-depth detectors and radio in high latitudes and so on which powerfully convey the difficulties of the mission. Eventually they surface through one of the rare available thin areas of ice, and three naval volunteers accompany Carpenter through a devastating ice storm to the burnt-out wreckage of the base, and the handful of burnt, frozen survivors huddled in the unheated cabin.

But of course, this is where the plot thickens, where we learn there is more to Ice Station Zebra than we have so far been told and that, in fact, the fire was no accident! Someone is up to no good. Who? Why? Bang. Crash.

‘Three men have been murdered on Zebra. Two shot, one knifed. Their bodies were burned to conceal traces of the crime. Four others died in the fire. The killer is aboard this ship.’
Rawlings said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face pale and shocked. (Ch 8)

And now like a classic tennis match, like a Grand Prix, we enjoy the sport, we relish watching a professional at work, as MacLean makes our hero pit his wits against the murderer or murderers, as there are (just as we expect) many more unexpected twists and turns in the plot. And MacLean, in his pomp, is knowing about it what he’s doing. In the midst of the horrors there is grim humour. Thus, after Carpenter has given the captain a long detailed explanation of what’s ‘really’ going on at Zebra, the captain says:

‘I and the crew of the Dolphin are at your complete disposal. You name it, Doctor, that’s all.’
‘This time you believe my story?’
‘This time I believe your story.’
I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself. (Ch 7)

Extreme physical endurance

Whereas Deighton’s texts, with their puzzles and rebuses are allusive and aloof, frequently leaving the reader detached and uninvolved, MacLean’s always arrive quickly at a level of physical punishment for the protagonist and superhuman endurance in prolonged situations of extreme danger, which almost physically grip the reader. He makes you feel the tremendous cold, the pain of frostbite, the taste of blood in your mouth after you’ve been shot etc, which makes his texts thrilling and compelling.

Death must have been swift, swift for all of them. Theirs had not been the death of men trapped by a fire, it had been the death of men who had themselves been on fire. Caught, drenched, saturated by a gale-borne sea of burning oil, they must have spent the last few seconds of life as incandescently blazing human torches before dying in insane screaming agony. They must have died as terribly as men ever die. (Ch 5)

And once again he is back in the pitiless location of the deep North, setting of HMS Ulysses and Night Without End, an extreme and unforgiving environment which he paints so well, and so terrifyingly.

The wind, shrieking and wailing across the bridge and through raised antennae, showed at consistently over 60 mph on the bridge anemometer. The ice-storm was no longer the gusting, swirling fog of that morning but a driving wall of stiletto-tipped spears, near lethal in its ferocity, high speed ice-spicule lances that would have skewered their way through the thickest cardboard or shattered in a second a glass held in your hand. Over and above the ululating threnody of the wind we could hear an almost constant grinding, crashing and deep-throated booming as millions of tons of racked and tortured ice, under the influence of the gale and some mighty pressure centre, heaven knew how many hundreds of miles away, reared and twisted and tore and cracked, one moment forming another rafted ridge as a layer of ice, perhaps ten feet thick, screeched and roared and clambered onto the shoulders of another and then another, the next rending apart in indescribably violent cacophony to open up a new lead, black wind-torn water that started to skim over with ice almost as soon as it was formed. (Ch 4)

High tension

Will Carpenter and his companions make it through the blistering Arctic storm to the base? Once there they discover the radio no longer works, how the hell are they going to get the sub to rescue them? Someone sabotages a torpedo tube so it read shut but is in fact full of water, and so opening it causes a catastrophe in which sailors die and the entire ship plunges deeper into the ocean than ever vessel has ever done before; will they survive? And then the same saboteur and spy sets a small fire which then gets out of hand and threatens to kill the crew by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reader skips over the hammy comparisons and the repetitive and hyperbolic style because these situations really are intense and nerve-racking. MacLean himself was the first to acknowledge he wasn’t a great writer, but he was a wizard at conceiving high-tension, white knuckle scenes and scenarios which keep you thoroughly gripped to the last page. And then you want another one.

Movie

Most of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, mostly rather low-budget and unsuccessful. Ice Station Zebra, made in 1968, was properly funded and secured some A-list stars – Rock Hudson as the submarine captain, Patrick McGoohan (in his The Prisoner heyday) as the doctor-cum-agent Carpenter, and Ernest Borgnine as the sneaky Russian.

MacLean himself worked on the script and it is significantly more dramatic and rounded than the novel (in the same way the implications of the The Satan Bug are more fully worked-out in the movie than in the book). The addition of the Russian spy onto the submarine at the start, and therefore a sequence of ‘unexplained’ sabotages to the sub, make for much more dramatic tension.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra, price 5 shilling

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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