The Pyramid in the Arctic

Is there anything more fascinating than abandoned towns? There’s a sense of drama in a hollowed-out building that is hard to replicate. Horror novels are full of them, dystopian fiction and sci-fi have seen their share, and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing but the shells of yesteryear.

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Pyramiden (the Pyramid) was a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic Ocean. Swedish-built in 1910, Pyramiden was bought 17 years later by the Soviet Union and kept in business until 1998, when the coal ran out. At one point, the town had 1000 inhabitants, a petrol station, swimming pool and a library with Tolstoy and Dostojevsky. Now, the streets have been empty for nearly 20 years, save for the odd polar bear.

Houses were left in a hurry. They remain much the same as in 1998, decay slowed by the frigid climate. There are long-dead flowers on the windowsills, faded posters on the walls and rusted swings in the playground. The old coal mine is still in place, with its buildings, coal cars and tracks. It could remain like this for decades, if not centuries, if left undisturbed. The cold keeps the town preserved.

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While Svalbard is Norwegian territory, Pyramiden retains the feel of a Russian outpost. Signs are written in cyrillic and latin script, and an old bust of Lenin is silently surveying the settlement from the front of the old culture house. Tolstoy and Dostojevsky are still on the shelves.

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Pyramiden is named for the pyramid-shaped mountain by which it lies. It is 50km north of the nearest city, Longyearbyen (which is the world’s northernmost settlement with more than 1000 inhabitants), and there is a research station with 30-130 inhabitants about 100km to the west. Transport is by snowmobile or boat, weather permitting. And the weather does not always permit.

Part of the appeal of this place is its location, miles from everything else, tucked away amidst freezing water and held in the grips of permafrost. Svalbard holds vast expanses of glaciers, a fair share of mountains and fjords, and populations of arctic foxes, reindeer, whales and migrating birds. Much of the land around Pyramiden is protected in the form of two national parks: Nordre Isfjorden (which roughly translates to Northern Icefjord, see photo below) and Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park. I’d probably go for the landscape and wildlife alone, even without the added attraction of a ghost town.

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There is a small, recently opened hotel in Pyramiden, so staying in town is possible. While it at first seemed disappointing to have a human presence in the abandoned place (although not a permanent settlement), a small haven for visitors is probably not a bad idea given the remoteness and climate. Also, there’s the polar bears to consider… I’m not an avid camper nor much use with a firearm, so Hotel Tulip may be just the ticket after all.

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A few days at the Tulip could spin enough ideas to fuel horror stories for a decade. Whatever your monster of choice, I’m sure this town can house it. A ghoul? Sure – it is a ghost town after all. Disease? Absolutely – imagine frozen contagions freed in a thawing landscape. Vampires? Of course – this is north of Barrow, Alaska, and darker than 30 days of night. Sea monsters? The waters are dark too, and cold. Land monsters? Already have those if you count the polar bears. Below ground? There’s the mines. Dystopia? Well, if you needed a place to hide from the horrors of the world, or stage the revolution, this is pretty far way. I might just put it on the wishlist for 2017.

 

(All images credited in title (hover for information and links). Photos from (in order) ser_is_snarkish, Frode Ramore, Bente Nordhagen, Bjoertvedt, Jerzy Strzelecki and google maps).

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Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

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Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

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The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here: http://www.worldwithoutus.com/excerpt.html)

 

The Royal Albert conundrum

I like to play the piano. I’ve always liked to play the piano. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the music, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to play, they tell me which instrument they got for their 7th birthday, discuss what type of music they enjoy, ask me if I prefer rock to classical, treat me to an anecdote of their brother, a violin and the neighbour’s two cats, or admit that they just bought a drum kit to their nephew. Not once have I been asked if I’ve played the Royal Albert Hall yet.

I like to write fiction. I’ve always liked to write fiction. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the story, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to write, they ask me if I’ve been published yet.

Why is writing measured solely by publishing? My piano-playing skills will never take me to the stage or studio, yet I doubt anyone will ever think that my lessons and hours spent over the keyboard were wasted as a consequence. So why is that the case for writing? What’s so inherently different between writing and other art forms that we presume the former is only validated by external approval, and the latter hold value in and by themselves?

Any thoughts?

(Royal Albert Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia. Why are you not playing there yet?)