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Ice Station Zebra – Book Review

Ice Station Zebra was written by Alistair Maclean and published in 1963. It is a classic mystery/thriller set on a submarine in the Arctic.

Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.

Ice Station Zebra: Logline

When contact is lost with a British base in the Arctic, a US submarine takes a British spy to investigate. He must deal with sabotage, the harsh Arctic climate and murderous Soviet agents in order to discover the truth.

Ice Station Zebra: Plot Summary

A British doctor, Carpenter, arrives at the dock in Scotland where a nuclear submarine, the USS Dolphin, is preparing to sail. He has orders from the US Fleet commander that he is to be conveyed to Ice Station Zebra, a British research base in the Arctic.

The station has sent an SOS: an accident has left many of the scientists dead or injured. Without food or heat the survivors will die within days. Dolphin can travel under the icecap, look for a patch of ice near the base thin enough to break through and rescue the scientists.

Dolphin travels to the Arctic and breaks through the ice, first a hundred miles from the base, and second only five miles away. Carpenter and four of the submarine’s crew walk through the blizzard to the base.

When they arrive at Ice Station Zebra it has been destroyed by fire. There are eleven injured survivors in one hut.

Carpenter returns to Dolphin, and tells the Captain there’s thin ice near the base. Dolphin prepares to blow a hole in the ice with a torpedo, but, someone has sabotaged the torpedo tube doors and seawater pours in. The submarine plummets into the ocean depths. The Captain manages to halt the dive by pumping air into the fresh water and diesel tanks.

Dolphin breaks through the ice and rescues the scientists. Carpenter inspects the base. He discovers the fire was deliberate, and that three of the men were murdered before it started. He explains to the Captain that Soviet agents had infiltrated the base because it had clandestine missile warning equipment. They must be responsible for the murders and the fire and are likely to be amongst the survivors.

As the survivors are brought aboard Dolphin, the ship’s doctor falls and is knocked unconscious. An insecure hatch crushes Carpenter’s hand. The Soviet agents are on board the submarine and trying to cover their tracks…

Dolphin [blackout]sets off under the ice, back to Britain but during the night the engine room is set on fire and the submarine fills with smoke. The crew start running out of oxygen but finally manage to stop the fire and restart the engines.[/blackout]

Carpenter[blackout] gets the scientists together and reveals he is an MI6 agent and knows who the murderer is.[/blackout]

The reason for the murders and the sabotage was [blackout]that vital spy satellite film had landed near Ice Station Zebra. The Soviet agents were ordered to retrieve the film and killed the three scientists when they became suspicious. They sabotaged Dolphin to try and give the Soviets time to retrieve them and the film.[/blackout]

Carpenter[blackout] tricks the Soviet agents into confessing and then arrests them.[/blackout]

Ice Station Zebra: Alternative Cover

I like the military style-font here, the hunched figures in the centre dwarfed by the submarine, which is itself lost in the ice and facing an oncoming blizzard.

Ice Station Zebra Alternative Book Cover

Ice Station Zebra: Analysis

Ice Station Zebra has a Mystery plot (see Spy Novel Plots).

The ‘Mystery’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
  2. Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and discover who the Antagonist is.
  3. Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
  4. Is impeded by the Antagonist.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
  7. Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
  8. Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
  9. Is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.

There has been an accident, and people are dead. The detective figure, Carpenter, discovers the accident was murder. He investigates.  And the novel ends in a ‘parlour scene’ that could be straight from a country-house murder-mystery.

What is missing is any real detecting. Carpenter finds a few clues, but there is barely any characterisation of the ‘suspects’. I guessed who the Soviet agent was long before the end, not because there were any pointers, but because he was the only person from the ice station who had more than a couple of lines.

Instead, and Alistair Maclean is of course a thriller writer, there are action scenes (the walk through the blizzard) and disaster movie set-pieces (the torpedo tube flood and the fire in the engine room); these are well described and atmospheric, particularly the fire.

The spy element is rather limited. Carpenter is obviously a British spy from the start. The murderers are Soviet spies. The motive  is spy-related, but only revealed in the second to last chapter and is a ‘MacGuffin’ (e.g. it could be anything, it has no direct plot relevance). Maclean describes Carpenter as being in ‘MI6 counter-espionage’. Of course, there is no such thing, as that’s the role of MI5.

Overall, although the plot hangs together it’s the weak characters that let the novel down. Carpenter has no real character traits other than being cold, tough and unflappable. The half a dozen interchangeable American sailors are all equally tough and unflappable but a bit jollier. The ice station survivors are indistinguishable from each other.

The reader is left then really with just the ‘will they make it?’ factor of the action set-pieces to maintain their interest, and they are of course excellent. Alistair Maclean’s strong point is his ability to evoke the tension and adrenalin of men facing seemingly impossible odds.

Ice Station Zebra: My Verdict

A straightforward book, part submarine techno-thriller and part murder mystery.  The submarine thriller is the better part of the book.

Ice Station Zebra: The Movie

Ice Station Zebra was adapted in 1968, directed by John Sturges and starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan and Ernest Borgnine. The movie is only very loosely based on the novel, abandoning the murder mystery element. Instead it is a race-thriller between the Russians and US to the base (which is completely destroyed with no survivors) to pick up a downed satellite. The film ends in a military confrontation between the two sides.

I don’t recommend it.

Here’s the trailer:

Want to read it?

The novel is available on US Amazon here, and UK Amazon here.

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