The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica

The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica

by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

Antarctica is a vortex that draws you back, season after season. The place is so raw and pure, all seal hide and crystalline iceberg. The fishbowl communities at McMurdo Station, South Pole Station, and in the remote field camps intensify relationships, jack all emotion up to a 10. The trick is to get what you need and then get out fast.


Antarctica is a vortex that draws you back, season after season. The place is so raw and pure, all seal hide and crystalline iceberg. The fishbowl communities at McMurdo Station, South Pole Station, and in the remote field camps intensify relationships, jack all emotion up to a 10. The trick is to get what you need and then get out fast.
    At least that’s how thirty-year-old Rosie Moore views it as she flies in for her third season on the Ice. She plans to avoid all entanglements, romantic and otherwise, and do her work as a galley cook. But when her flight crash-lands, so do all her plans.
    Mikala Wilbo, a brilliant young composer whose heart—and music—have been frozen since the death of her partner, is also on that flight. She has come to the Ice as an artist-in-residence, to write music, but also to secretly check out the astrophysicist father she has never met.
    Arriving a few weeks later, Alice Neilson, a graduate student in geology who thinks in charts and equations, is thrilled to leave her dependent mother and begin her career at last. But from the start she is aware that her post-doc advisor, with whom she will work in Antarctica, expects much more from their relationship.
    As the three women become increasingly involved in each other’s lives, they find themselves deeply transformed by their time on the Ice. Each falls in love. Each faces challenges she never thought she would meet. And ultimately, each finds redemption in a depth and quality of friendship that only the harsh beauty of Antarctica can engender.
Finalist, Lambda Literary Awards
Finalist, Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, awarded by the Publishing Triangle
Finalist, Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Honorable Mention, Foreword Magazine’s Gay/Lesbian Fiction Book of the Year
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The raw emotions of three women in Bledsoe's fifth novel (after Biting the Apple) lead to often explosive interactions among scientists, artists, and other lost souls marooned in Antarctica. A crash-landing and the discovery of a long-frozen body bonds Mikala Wilbo, a composer, to Rosie Moore, a cook beginning her third season at McMurdo research station. Rosie, a woman with nomadic tendencies and no familial ties, longs for a real home and swears this season will be her last. Mikala, meanwhile, is in Antarctica on an artist's grant but also has a powerful secret motive. After the crash survivors are rescued and transported via snowmobiles to McMurdo, Mikala acknowledges her crush on Rosie, who is lusting after someone else. Then arrives Alice Neilson, a geologist who rooms with Rosie to perhaps untoward results. Bledsoe digs into themes of individuality and lonesomeness, and the idea of safety in numbers, and though the narrative's introspectiveness can at times be as daunting as the Antarctic's harsh climate, Bledsoe finds the spark of life amid the ice and desolation. (May)
From the Publisher

“Lucy Jane Bledsoe knows that the people who go to Antarctica move to a heightened existence, as if to the roof of the universe, where they are stripped to their essences under a surreal sun. A beautiful novel about living in that extreme space, vivid and suspenseful.”—Kim Stanley Robinson, award-winning author of Antarctica and the Science in the Capital trilogy

“Against the frozen blues and grays of McMurdo Station, three women trick themselves into thinking they can ‘get what they need and then get out fast.’ But ice holds onto things. Cold makes the wrong kind of warm all too easy. When three independent women come to ‘the cold white polar beauty’ with cautious longing, what they find isn’t what they’d hoped for. Lucy Jane Bledsoe depicts place as a character in this charming, tightly orchestrated novel, filled with striking description and suspenseful plot twists.”
—Carol Guess, author of Tinderbox Lawn

Kirkus Reviews
Three women come to Antarctica looking for answers and find each other. Rosie Moore is an Antarctic veteran. But as she heads toward the continent for her third season working in the McMurdo Station kitchen, she finds herself questioning her nomadic nature and longing for a home. Composer Mikala Wilbo is a newcomer, hoping to bury her grief over the death of her longtime partner as she finally confronts her absentee father, a former hippie who has become one of the Pole's most renowned scientists. It's Rosie's expertise that helps Mikala survive when their plane crashes on the ice, and Rosie's sheer animal exuberance that first starts to reawaken the composer, who hasn't written any music in months. But when Rosie discovers the dead body of a young woman who seems to have wandered off from the crash, the two are once again confronted by the fragility of life. "[T]he line between terror and peace, as well as the one between life and death, was mathematically thin, existed only in theory," Rosie realizes. When Alice Neilson arrives to take the dead girl's place, she acts as a catalyst. A determined homebody, in thrall to her controlling alcoholic mother, Alice is transformed by the Pole's atmosphere of freedom. All three women find themselves falling in love, and all three must avoid the pitfalls of their pasts, until, finally, Alice's emerging bravery sets in play a stunning rescue that will pull all three into a new phase of life. In this compelling novel, Bledsoe (How to Survive in Antarctica, 2006, etc.) captures the deadly beauty of the southernmost continent. Although the male characters tend to be a bit generic-gruff, sexy nerds-the three protagonists are distinctive. A well-balanced humdinger of a story keeps this unusual novel hurtling along like a skidoo on the ice.

Product Details

University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Big Bang Symphony

A Novel of Antarctica
By Lucy Jane Bledsoe

Terrace Books

Copyright © 2010 Lucy Jane Bledsoe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-23500-0

Chapter One

The plane was only half full. Mostly scientists. Few workers deployed to the continent this late in the season. Rosie was glad to be doing a short stint this year. By the time she left in February, three months from now, she would have her down payment. If she managed to not get fired.

Rosie smiled. She couldn't help it. She knew she should hate McMurdo Station, that scattering of debris that passed as a town. All the workers said they did. Everyone said they returned only for the good money you could make in a few short months. But Antarctica was like a vortex that drew you back, season after season. The place was so raw and pure, all seal hide and crystalline iceberg. The fishbowl community at McMurdo intensified relationships, jacked all emotion up to a ten. The trick was to get what you needed and then get out fast.

This was Rosie's third season and she intended it to be her last.

An exceptionally tall man, sitting across the plane from her, thought the smile on her face was for him. He smiled back. Then he raised a camera. A bright flash blinded her for a moment as he took her picture. He was still smiling after he lowered the camera. She couldn't see much of him in the dim light of the plane's interior. A prominent Adam's apple. Good posture. His bearing gave the impression that he'd never had a doubt in his life. He reached into his pocket and took out a pencil stub and tiny notepad. He scratched down a few words.

The loadmaster, a chubby man wearing military fatigues, emerged from the cockpit and pulled the intercom system's mouthpiece to his face. Rosie strained to hear what he had to say. Even with the amplification, hearing anything over the loud engines on these austere Air Force planes was nearly impossible. The loadmaster cleared his throat before announcing that they had passed the point of safe return.

The announcement sent a few quick pulses of fear through Rosie. The Southern Ocean, the roughest patch of water on the planet, sloshed thousands of feet below. Ahead, glaciers and sky, three months of hard work. She looked out the porthole to the left of the tall man's head and saw blue brilliance. Good thing. From here on in the plane wouldn't have enough fuel to turn around and fly back to New Zealand. The point of safe return held a satisfaction, like gambling, all or nothing.

She just hoped that this year she would get the all, not the nothing.

Rosie swallowed, closing her throat against the urge to sing. Always the urge to sing when she felt scared. But that was exactly her problem. Song was like flight. Temporary, impermanent. Yet she treated singing like going home, as if her voice would deliver her somewhere safe and warm. She had turned thirty this past summer. Yet here she was, still in flight, literally.

These LC-130s they used for transporting workers and scientists on and off the continent, crewed by the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, were ski-equipped cargo planes. Red webbed seats lined the inside hull and a complex tangle of mysterious pipes and hardware covered all the other surfaces. Designed before women were ever deployed anywhere, the women's "bathroom" was a curtain drawn incompletely around a rustic toilet, set up on an unstable crate. A few porthole windows let in a bit of light and views of the sky. She might be riding a tough military cargo plane, but it was still flight. Rosie closed her eyes and let the LC-130's powerful vibrations shake her to the core.

This would be her last landing in Antarctica. She'd leave the continent in February. Hopefully, with a grubstake in her bank account. She'd give up flight of all kinds. She wanted home. She wanted to land somewhere permanent. But it was like she had to travel to the opposite of what she wanted, into the very heart of transience-and then get out again-to get it.

Rosie had come by this lifestyle honestly. Her father had changed jobs every year as he chased each new get-rich-quick scheme. Ironically, that's why she'd left home and never gone back. She'd never wanted to be him, the person who didn't know how to keep two feet on the ground, who thought a wish was the same thing as a bank account. When she left home at seventeen, she knew with a full-body certainty that she was going somewhere concrete and specific. She just hadn't figured out where. She'd lived in Boise, Portland, Durango, White Salmon, Tucson, Lincoln City, Redding, and Fairbanks, and worked as many short order cook and tree-planting jobs. She'd become her father and hadn't even noticed.

Rosie opened her eyes and looked directly into those of the tall, resolute man. He raised his camera slowly and pushed the shutter release button. It felt as if he'd touched her. She closed her eyes again, twisting in the web seat so she could lean her head against the plane's steel hull. Eventually, she managed to fall into a light sleep.

When they hit the first bump, it jarred her awake. Nothing more than a mass of air at cross purposes with the plane, but still, she checked her seatbelt. A series of bumps followed, as if the plane had bounced down a short flight of stairs. She glanced at the photographer. He stared at the camera in his lap, which he was gripping with his two big, capable-looking hands, as if it were a baby. She let her gaze travel up to his face, rest on his mouth. To avoid thinking about the turbulence, she considered what kind of kisser he would be.

When the LC-130 next lurched, he looked up, directly at her again. She smiled. He lifted his camera and, this time, took a series of shots. All of her.

She hand-motioned for him to stop. "What are you doing?" she mouthed.

But he didn't have a chance to answer, even if he had been able to read her lips, because the plane dropped suddenly, and then tipped, as if a forceful gust had slammed under the right wing.

A grizzled guy in the seat next to Rosie yelled, to be heard over the engine's roar, "Is this normal? These bumps?"

A FNG, as in fucking new guy, and pronounced fingee. Rosie nodded even though so far as she knew the turbulence wasn't exactly normal. She had only experienced smooth flights to the Ice.

The round porthole to the side of the photographer's head now looked like an ominous pearl, glossy with storm cloud. The plane shuddered so hard it felt like her internal organs were getting shaken loose. The loadmaster, who usually milled about the front of the plane, had disappeared. The photographer was furiously scratching notes in his notebook, as if writing would stabilize the plane.

"Mandatory ECW gear!" The loadmaster's voice boomed the three words over the sound system. He gestured at his own clothing and Rosie understood that he was instructing all passengers to suit up fully in their Extreme Cold Weather gear, if they weren't already. Most passengers, accustomed to emergency drills, moved slowly at first, even lazily, tying laces and pulling mittens out of pockets. A few got up to rummage clothing out of duffels. But when the loadmaster grabbed the mike again, this time to announce that he expected everyone to be suited up in ten seconds or less, people began to panic, catching the fabric of their parkas with the zippers or putting their feet in the wrong boots.

The loadmaster made his way through the plane, lurching with each jolt, making sure all the passengers were strapped to their seats. As he bent to tighten Rosie's straps, she felt fear in his fumbling hands. The turbulence caused him to stumble on his way back to the flight deck, and he fell onto the pile of duffels in the center of the plane. Rosie looked away as he struggled to his feet, fell again, and then crawled toward the cockpit before the plane's flight smoothed out enough for him to get up and walk.

The grizzled guy sitting next to her laughed.

During the next few minutes, it felt as if they were slamming into one mountain after another. But they stayed in flight, so Rosie knew they were colliding with terrific crosswinds, masses of air not land. A thick onslaught of tiny snowflakes pasted the porthole window. They would be landing blind.

Rosie so badly wanted to sing. People would think she was crazy. Instead, she watched the tall man, trying to figure out if he felt as calm as he looked. Though he still gripped his camera tightly, his mouth and brow seemed tranquil, almost virtuously so. Rosie wanted to run her fingers across the smooth skin of his lips. He held his knees together and his elbows in close, keeping his very long legs and arms from crowding the passengers on either side of him. She couldn't help wondering what it would be like to wrap her own legs around those lanky limbs.

Another wall of air upended the plane's right wing and they turned on their side, putting Rosie flat on her back with the photographer hanging in his seat belt directly above her. She made eye contact, willing an erotic charge, as if that could save her life, as if locking eyes with this one man would secure the entire flight.

Another major jolt brought her back to her senses. To think of sex while flying in an Air Force cargo plane that was losing its battle against fierce Antarctic winds! Maybe she was crazy. The sun suddenly appeared in the porthole, momentarily liberated from the storm, and a white glare shot into the plane. Someone screamed. The plane shook violently. The tall man pulled his camera to his stomach and leaned his entire body over it. At first Rosie thought he was protecting the camera, but then she realized he was positioning himself for a crash.

They hit the ice, the force of the impact sending shocks of pain through Rosie's body.

Chapter Two

When the plane slammed into the ice, it sounded to Mikala as if all the musicians in the world had thrown their instruments-horns, pianos, cellos, timpani-off a tall building at once. Music's apocalypse. A simultaneous thud and crunch and crash of uncharted dimension and amplification.

Pain followed, waves of it surging from some point at the back of her head, one swell rolling after another. Her eyes blacked out, and she entered a strange and protracted silence, as if time had stretched. She sat in a large bubble of stillness. She could even think. Her thoughts were infinite kinds of thoughts, like Where is Sarah? And, Am I dead?

But no, too much pain for death. A long, searing screech propelled her out of the silence bubble. The plane screamed as it skidded across the rough ice, bouncing into the air and smacking back down again. Mikala leaned forward, her hands around the back of her neck, to protect her pounding head. The plane swept a full 360 degrees and then tipped. The centrifugal force thudded her against the body to her left, a pillow of human and parka, and she didn't even try to right herself. Motion slowed, but she stayed slumped against the person. Another moment of calm swallowed her, almost a luxuriousness, as if the end of suffering were in sight. Then, it seemed the plane had come to a stop.

Carefully, she allowed her fingers to travel up the back of her neck until she could touch the epicenter of pain. She expected a sticky mass of blood and hair, but found only a hot, dry tenderness, swelling even as she fingered the spot.

Others began to stir. Mikala didn't dare look up. She listened. Some grunts of fear, people testing their voices, still in too much shock to shout. The sounds of gear being slammed into place. The metallic clicks of seatbelts being undone. She tested her head again. No blood, just a lump. She slowly extended each arm, each leg, and found them all in working condition. The sounds around her muted, softened, and she listened for the possibility of music.

The moment was destroyed by an explosion, a blast that ripped away all other sound and thought. The rest of Mikala's senses leapt to attention now and she looked around quickly. The interior of the plane was still intact, but a dull roar grew in intensity. A dense and rank smell plugged her nose. She saw fire out one porthole.

The loadmaster got the main door and emergency hatches open and he frantically beckoned the passengers to get moving. The rest of the crew shot off the flight deck and helped evacuate the plane, checking for injuries, taking elbows, and carrying one unconscious woman.

"Go! Go! Go!" the loadmaster shouted. When it came Mikala's turn to exit the plane, she felt his hand against her back, pushing her hard out into the storm. Crunch under her feet and blowing snow in her eyes. She blinked, trying to clear her vision, but a cold white grasped everything. The rest of the passengers ran like a frightened herd away from the plane, some scattering in the icy wilderness, others shouting to stay in a group. Mikala began to run, too, but after about ten yards, another one of those quiet pauses overwhelmed her. She had promised herself that she would start living with not just her ears open but her eyes, too, that coming to this continent was the beginning of moving on. From Sarah's death. From the blockade of grief. She would use all her senses here in Antarctica. This, of course, was an extreme situation, a disaster, and surely she could be excused from her intentions in this instance, and yet something deeper than a voice, something visceral, caused her to stop and look back at the plane, just briefly, so she could see what was happening.

Blue and orange flames spiked above the far side of the plane. The crew now wrestled with fire-fighting equipment, their bodies a vigorous dark dance against the bright snow and brighter flames. Two more passengers rushed past her, and one small figure darted away from the plane, disappearing into the thick blur of blowing snow.

Mikala wondered, looked around quickly, and then the intensity of white sucked the moment away. She felt only a dry, very cold fear as she turned and looked for the group. The other passengers were barely visible now, a pale mass of retreating color. She could scarcely hear the loadmaster shouting for everyone to keep moving away from the plane, to move fast. Mikala broke into a run over the hard cold snow and ice, her lungs burning by the time she reached the others.

Chapter Three

Rosie had no idea if they were on the ice runway near McMurdo Station or if they'd crash-landed miles away. The loadmaster kept shouting for everyone to stay in a group, but that was nearly impossible in these conditions. A blinding snow angled down and she saw only the jacket in front of her. A couple of steps in the wrong direction and she'd never find the group again. Rosie put her hand on the shoulder of the nearest jacket. The bearded man who'd been sitting next to her turned and smiled. He actually smiled, as if this were exactly why he'd taken a job in Antarctica, to relish a threat to his life. Rosie reached for another shoulder, but that person moved away and her arm fell through the icy air and back to her side.

When the group came to a standstill, Rosie walked right into someone's back. The loadmaster worked to corral everyone, encouraging them to huddle for warmth like penguins. Moments later, a couple of other crew members began distributing survival duffels they had pulled from a stash on the plane. "Groups of three!" the loadmaster shouted. A man wearing a red jacket grabbed the arm of Rosie's tan Carhartt parka, and then he reached out and snagged another red-jacketed person.

The three stood in a circle, their arms going around one another as if by instinct, bracing themselves against the hard wind and horizontally blowing snow. They paused for a long moment, like a team doing a chant before taking to the playing field. When one of the crew dropped a duffel against Rosie's legs, she and the man stooped to unzip it. They pulled out a tent and wrestled it from its sleeve. Rosie thought he had it and he thought she had it, and the taffeta flapped away from their hands and billowed into the air. Rosie dove for the tent, just barely snatching it from the arms of the storm.

The third member of their team stood hugging herself, her legs buckling. She looked very frightened, so Rosie had the idea of putting her inside the limp tent to keep it from blowing away while she and the man erected it. Once they got the woman slipped between the sheets of fabric, they dug deadman anchors, deep holes in which they buried snow stakes so that the tent would hold up in this wind. They inserted the poles into the tent sleeves and popped up the shelter. Then they shoved the duffel with the rest of their survival gear into the vestibule and crawled over the duffel and into the tent.


Excerpted from The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe Copyright © 2010 by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lucy Jane Bledsoe has traveled to Antarctica three times and has stayed at all three American stations, as well as in field camps where scientists are studying penguins, climate change, and the Big Bang. She is the recipient of the 2009 Sherwood Anderson Prize for Fiction, the 2009 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, a California Arts Council Fellowship, an American Library Association Stonewall Award, and two National Science Foundation Artists & Writers in Antarctica Fellowships. Her Antartic books include The Ice Cave: A Woman's Adventures from the Mojave to the Antartic, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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