Anyone who penetrates permafrosted, progress-bent northeastern Siberia has a story. At Yakutsk, French journalist Max found a professional ""elite"" earning three times the Moscow scale, an Arctic-hred apple tree with surface roots and inches-high branches, houses on stilts (else their heat would melt the permafrost) and plans for a skating rink underground--because it's too cold in winter to skate outdoors. Why not leave Yakutiya to the native Yakuts (who ate reindeer meat and lived in yurts)? ""Unexplored a decade ago,"" the region contains ""the most extensive mineral reserves of the Soviet Union"": natural gas, oil, diamonds, tin, gold, copper, phosphates, iron. . . ""asbestos, tungsten, molybdenum, zinc, lead, manganese, nickel, and silver."" It is this wealth that will pay for the Western and Japanese imports--of technology and goods--necessary to satisfy the rising demand for consumer products. So, on the one hand, a space-probe-size budget has been allocated to build the BAM, the Baikal-Amur-Magistral railway for east-west access to the region; and, on the other, Permafrost Institute director Pavel Melnikov, responsible for the vital research, lives in a villa surrounded by a garden ""fi la Chekhov"" (the much-traveled family members jokingly remark) and serves his guests a Lucullan feast. Max also visits Khabarovsk, in the far east, where China is omnipresent and unmentioned--leading him into a lengthy recital of the Russo-Chinese breakup and border disputes (more than usually comprehensible on the spot, however). Back at Lake Baikal, a recent conservation battleground, he's just another inquiring reporter, and to Moscow bureaucrats, another outlet for gradiose plans. Not that he ignores the manpower difficulties or the persistence of forced labor camps--he just doesn't look into them. Most intriguing is the vision of a Brave New World abuilding in the Siberian wilderness--on a Russian-embroidered American model.