Ice Station Zebra

From Academic Kids

Ice Station Zebra (1963, ISBN 0002433389) is a novel written by Alistair Maclean

Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British meteorlogical station built on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea, is in trouble. The station has had a fire, and men have died. The rest are holed up in one hut with no food or heat, and little liquid water. If help does not reach them soon, they will die.

The (fictional) nuclear-powered submarine USS Dolphin is dispatched on a rescue mission. Just before it departs, the mysterious Dr. Carpenter, an apparent expert in dealing with frostbite and other deep-cold medical conditions (and the narrator of the story), asks to accompany them.

At first, Captain Swanson is suspicious of Carpenter, even though he receives an order from the Admiralty instructing him to obey Carpenter's every command, except where crew safety is at stake. Swanson tells Carpenter he is still inclined to refuse. Carpenter reveals that this is not simply a rescue mission - the station is actually a highly equipped listening post, keeping watch for nuclear missile launches from the Soviet Union. Swanson then allows Carpenter to come along.

Soon the Dolphin is under the Arctic ice pack, searching for a place to surface and attempt to contact Zebra, whose radio signals are becoming weaker by the hour. Eventually finding a place where the ice is thin enough to break through, the Dolphin establishes radio contact, and gets a bearing on their position. But Zebra is too far away to attempt to reach on foot, so the submarine re-submerges, hoping to get closer. Carpenter confides to the Captain that one of the men at the station is his brother.

With time running out, the Dolphin finds open water, and surfaces just 5 miles from the station. Carpenter and three crewmen make the perilous journey into an arctic storm on foot, taking with them as many supplies as they can. After a harrowing trek they reach Zebra. Devastation awaits them. Three of the eight huts and almost all supplies have been destroyed by a widespread oil fire. Eight men are dead - burnt to a crisp. Eleven men are alive, but barely. While the victims are being tended to, Carpenter does some investigating.

Unable to make radio contact, Carpenter and one of the crew return to the sub. They are able to take news of the location of thin ice near Zebra. The Dolphin submerges, and heads for Zebra. The ice there is still too thick to punch through with the sub's "sail" (i.e., conning tower) - but maybe it can be opened with a torpedo. Disaster strikes. The crew attempts to load a torpedo into one of the tubes, but when the inner door is opened, a torrent of water rushes in, killing a crewman and sending the Dolphin into a nearly catastrophic dive. Only by heroic measures is the Dolphin able to save itself. After successfully cracking the ice, the sub finally emerges just two hundred feet from Zebra. The sick men are treated, but some of them are still too ill to be carried to the sub. Carpenter does some more investigating. What he finds is that the fire was no accident - it was a cover to hide the fact that three of the burnt men were murdered, one of whom was his brother. Carpenter already knows why - the only question is who? Swanson also has a look around, and finds no trace of the sophisticated listening equipment - Carpenter lied to him.

Finally, the survivors are aboard, Zebra is abandoned, and the Dolphin heads back, but not without several further incidents. The ship's doctor in knocked into a coma. Carpenter himself is severely hurt in another apparent accident. Then, a fire breaks out in the engine room and the sub is forced to shut down its nuclear power plant. Without power for heating or air purification, the Dolphin looks set to become a frozen tomb trapped under the ice pack.


Ice Station Zebra was adapted into a movie in 1968, starring Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine and Patrick McGoohan. The character names are changed, and the plot makes considerable departures from the novel, including the resolution. The nuclear-powered Dolphin was portrayed in the movie by the diesel-electric submarine USS Ronquil. It was nominated for an Academy Award in the special effects category. 2001: A Space Odyssey won instead.

External links

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