Fragment Reviews

Mud City Press, September 4, 2017

Craig Russell's Fragment succeeds on multiple fronts. On one level, it's a fascinating work of idea-fiction that tells a tale of first contact between humans and whales. It also spins an absorbing thriller yarn in which a motley group of humans and a lone, heroic whale join forces to face an unprecedented threat. On a third level, the book offers important insights into the gravest ecological reality of our time, climate change, without ever coming across as didactic or preachy. None of this is to say that Fragment is faultless, however; on the contrary, it is unfortunately hindered by a significant implausibility. But if you can suspend your disbelief for the sake of a good read, this flaw should put only a slight damper on your enjoyment of the book.

The story unfolds in what feels like the present (though the exact period isn't specified), and is told in the present tense, a technique used quite effectively to heighten the suspense. Scientists at Scott Base, New Zealand's permanent Antarctic research facility located near the Ross Ice Shelf, have concluded that four huge glaciers are about to make major advances. Polar climatologist Kate Sexsmith appears on network news to warn of the threat this portends. She begins describing how one of the glaciers is about to plow right into the Ice Shelf, but before she can elaborate any further, the interview is cut short. The climatologist is frantically rushed out of the room by a colleague as the rumble of avalanching snow erupts all around her, and then a brief moment later, the TV camera stops transmitting.

The shifting glaciers have broken a colossal chunk off the Ice Shelf and thrust it into the Southern Ocean. This "fragment," as it comes to be known, is 200 miles long by 100 wide, weighs half a trillion tons and threatens to kill countless unsuspecting sea creatures in its path. The destructive force that it attains as it moves north and gets swept up in the world's largest ocean current also makes it a dire threat to coastal population centers everywhere along its trajectory.

Russell skillfully interweaves several concurrent plot strands. In one of them, the three researchers from Scott Base travel to nearby McMurdo Air Force Base, only to find it leveled and all its 2,000 inhabitants dead. Shortly thereafter, the scientists are picked up by the USN SSBN Lincoln, a U.S. nuclear missile sub diverted to McMurdo to rescue survivors. Meanwhile, back at the New York headquarters of Innovation-TV, executives strategize their follow-up to the aborted interview with Dr. Sexsmith. They arrange for a reporter to board a cruise ship that's been rerouted to intercept the Fragment. There are also plot strands involving Good Samaritans Blair Cockburn, a sailor who rushes to the cruise ship's aid when it comes to grief, and Ring, a blue whale who sets out to warn his brethren about the Fragment. In the last major plot line, the U.S. president and his advisors debate what do about Ring, whom they come to view as a counterintelligence liability due to his ability to detect the locations of American military subs through sonar, together with his capacity to communicate with humans.

Ring's first clue to the Fragment's existence comes when he begins having trouble hearing other blues' songs. The notes aren't coming through as clearly as usual, and Ring deduces that this must be because some large undersea mass is impeding sound waves. Upon further investigation, he encounters the Fragment–and immediately senses the danger it poses. He starts composing a song to alert other blues and then sings it at regular intervals while swimming alongside the Fragment. This courageous act saves the lives of many blues, but is sadly incapable of helping the scores of other animals that can't understand blue.

Though they don't comprehend its meaning at first, two humans also take notice of Ring's warning. Renowned marine biologist Graham Palmer, who was among the three scientists to board the Lincoln at McMurdo, first hears the song when the sub's sonar chief, a huge fan of Palmer's work, presents him with a recording of it. The two men are transfixed, for this whale song is unlike any other they've heard, and together they set about trying to translate it. After much persistence and the help of other scientists and technicians, they succeed in decoding it, then proceed to compose a response. This latter effort is rather crude, given their rudimentary grasp of blue, but Ring gets the gist nonetheless.

Soon Ring and the scientists strike up a voluminous conversation. The humans become fluent enough in blue to give Ring lessons in history, mathematics and other subjects. They're aided in their efforts by the fact that blues, like humans, use abstractions and metaphors. As a result, the scientists are able to convey ideas through image transformations. For example, they illustrate the notion of peace by showing the calming of a violent storm, and the meanings of words like "harden" and "soften" by describing a jellyfish turning into a crab, and vice versa. As electrified as the researchers are at making contact with another sentient being, their student is equally thrilled. Clearly a cut or two above most other blues in cunning and intellectual curiosity, Ring immensely enjoys the challenge of learning about humans.

Fragment's most obvious theme is the alarming rate at which climate change is accelerating. While we have yet to see, in the real world, anything on the order of a country-sized piece of ice breaking away from an icecap and raining annihilation on human and sea animal populations alike, the impacts that we are seeing consistently exceed even worst-case expectations. Thus, the scenario depicted in Russell's book is entirely believable.

Another of Fragment's themes is the faulty reasoning that climate change deniers use to stoke public doubt over the issue. We watch a conservative pundit come onto national TV and argue, based on cherry-picked photos of a few isolated glaciers that have crept out to sea, that glaciers in general haven't been receding. When the news anchor, who is no slouch at detecting bad logic, calls him out on this, the man clumsily resorts to another tactic: impassioned hand waving about how America "will not have carbon emission limits forced on it by foreign socialists. America will remain free."

Russell's writing is Crichtonesque in the way it draws on science from a range of fields to speculate capitvatingly on the future. In describing the terrain and inner workings of the Fragment, Russell builds on our existing knowledge of real-world glaciers and ice sheets. In particular, he shows how the complex moulin systems that undermine glaciers' stability–by allowing meltwater to carve out their insides like so much swiss cheese–could apply on a titanic scale, turning a drifting ice sheet into a destructive force such as the world has never seen. The author also presents lots of interesting information about blue whale anatomy, underwater sound propagation, the physics of wave formation and various other topics.

As much of a knack as Russell has for rousing storytelling, he is equally adept at character development, and in Fragment he wisely focuses on a well-chosen handful of players. For me, the most well-realized characters are Ring, the brilliant whale expert and the valiant veteran sailor who carries out perhaps the most heroic act of anyone. I was especially impressed by how emotionally involved I became in Ring's story despite his belonging to a different species.

I stated earlier that Fragment suffers from an implausibility. Fortunately, it doesn't come into play (at least, for me) until the novel's denouement. I won't spoil the ending, so suffice it to say that I just had a hard time buying how quickly humans and whales go from first contact to interspecies collaboration and comradeship. (It's to Russell's great credit that he sold me on the premise that such a progression could occur at all.) In addition, I felt discomfort at something the scientists tell Ring in their efforts to persuade him to keep talking to them. They assure him that if, one day, humans and whales at large are able to communicate with one another, humans' mass slaughter of whales will stop. To me this is a case of making a promise one can't possibly keep–how can these individuals feel confident speaking for all members of their kind? But the issues just touched on are the only wrong notes I detected in the entire novel; everything else hits the mark squarely.

— Frank Kaminski, Mud City Press (also on Resilience, September 5, 2017)

EcoLit Books, August 17, 2017

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment.

When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

— Jacki Skole, EcoLit Books


Imagine introducing a new sentient race to the world. Imagine climate change alarmist stories coming true right before your eyes. Imagine how much good can be done in an emergency by a small group of like-minded people. Put all that together with interesting and relevant science, and you have Fragment. Written by Canadian author Craig Russell, the book opens with a straightforward explanation of the heat of fusion, revealing why ice is such resilient stuff even in the face of temperatures above freezing.

"Consider the nature of ice," Russell writes. "The heat of fusion is one of its mysteries." In one page, the first page, Russell captures the reader's interest and launches them into an adventure full of unexpected turns and fascinating science. Oh, and throw in a cruise ship, a nuclear sub, a small sailboat, and a lonely whale for good measure.

Fragment is a string of all-too-plausible events that were obviously well-researched. While a journalist in America interviews a scientist live in Antarctica, the Antarctic Ross Sea Ice Shelf is shoved free of the continent. In a perfect storm of conditions, a 'berg half the size of Kentucky is created. No one can predict where the behemoth will strike land, and debates begin immediately over possibilities.

Three glaciers travel on the back of the ice sheet, and as Russell illustrates, fetch (the distance available for the waves to build on open water) is infinite in the Drake Passage, causing the ice shelf to gain momentum. Most people predictably deny there's much danger, and the POTUS puts his main man to work spinning events in a favourable light. But lives and homes are at risk, and when a mismatched team of believers try to get the word out, help comes from the most unexpected places.

The intriguing asides regarding the science at hand enhance the story and reveal just how plausible this near-future science fiction story really is, while also adding imagery to the events around them. "There are a variety of physical factors that affect the Fragment," Russell writes in one interposition. "The first is gravity. Because of its size it's not really a flat object at all. It actually curves across the surface of the earth, like the last piece of skin to be peeled off an orange."

Russell leads us on a thoughtful and daring undertaking that captures global issues and weaves them into a personable story of real humans doing the best they can with what they have... and surprising themselves in the process. This novel also celebrates the spirit of chasing an idea against all rules and skepticism standing in the way, and how that can often lead to the biggest discoveries of all.

Released on October 1, 2016, Fragment follows Russell's Black Bottle Man, which won the 2011 American Moonbeam Award gold medal for Young Adult Fantasy and was a finalist for the Canadian Prix Aurora Awards and two Manitoba book awards.

— Adria Laycraft,

 Analog science fiction and fact magazine, February 26, 2017

For action/adventure, there’s nothing like a disaster — the bigger the better. And Fragment tells of a fairly major one that unreels with agonizing slowness in the Antarctic.

In the near future, Kate Sexsmith is a Canadian climatologist studying the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. While she’s giving a live television interview, a catastrophic series of avalanches begins — when all is said and done, a huge fragment of the Ross Ice Shelf breaks free and starts drifting toward South America.

Kate and two fellow scientists survive the catastrophe, but are marooned in the wreckage of their base. They’re rescued by a U. S. nuclear submarine, but the captain enforces radio silence so the scientists are unable to warn the rest of the world of the danger that’s coming.

Meanwhile, the reporter who was interviewing Kate at the time of the disaster sets forth with a colleague to find out what’s going on. First, they have to cross the storm-torn Drake Passage, one of the most dangerous parts of the ocean even under favorable conditions.

In Washington, the U.S. President gets advance word of the ice fragment nearing down on the civilized world, threatening millions. Trouble is, there’s an election coming up, and a disaster in South America could lead to a disaster in the president’s poll numbers. At the same time, the president’s advisors, worried about military implications, are urging him to take action.

And a brave blue whale called Ring tries to warn his fellow whales about the danger of the fragment . . . yet the ocean is huge, and one whale’s voice is comparatively small.

Craig Russell is a Canadian lawyer best known for young adult fantasy; he does a fine job of weaving together the disparate threads of Fragment. The book is a page-turner; once you start, you won’t be able to put it down until you reach the end. The parts featuring the whale Ring are compelling in their depiction of an alien mind and society. And the action is nonstop.

— Don Sakers, Analog


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