Monday, May 5, 2014

Big Dead Place - The Man Who Loved Antarctica

Reprinted here is my Amazon review of this book…

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
by Nicholas Johnson

Photo of Birchall Peaks taken from Maigetter Peak, Ford Ranges, Marie Byrd Land. Photo © Bruce Luyendyk
Snowmobiles in the Birchall Peaks, Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica.
Photo © Bruce Luyendyk 

Although Big Dead Place was published over nine years ago it has remained in the spotlight.


HBO planned a miniseries based on the book. The actor James Gandolfini pushed the project as a producer and was expected to star in it. Peter Gould of Breaking Bad was to do the screenplay. Gandolfini died in June 2013. Ironically, Johnson committed suicide in late 2012. Whether the project goes forward or not remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the book remains a first in memoirs of Antarctic experiences in its unflinching, no-holds-barred exposé of what it means to work in Antarctica as an underling to the institutional mission - which is to stake a virtual claim of Antarctica for the U.S.

His own experience was as a dishwasher and waste handler over many seasons. His stints include a stupefying winter-over at McMurdo and a summer season at South Pole. This is not the story of heroic explorers facing injury and death every day. It is about ordinary, exuberant and talented folks who get trapped in a mindless bureaucracy, and are at times mistreated by NSF and their contractor Raytheon. They come with dreams and are met with organizational chaos, an industrial setting and harsh working conditions. Characters are eccentric. It is revealed early in his book that this is a main requirement, for better or worse, to survive in the U.S. Antarctic Program. He tells the story like an absurd surreal foggy dream - at times a continuous fraternity party and others a stretch in a minimum-security prison.


Johnson is nevertheless enthralled by the whole of his experiences and with Antarctica. He has a deep love for it that his cynicism and humor does not mask. The narrative is clear on why, a unique place with unique people, who deal with unique circumstances. He objects to the anthropomorphizing of Antarctica as the antagonist, a common thread of virtually all published work on the Antarctic experience. Rather, the antagonist is the system. Antarctica is only a big dead place. The book is outrageous and funny in many parts, a bit dry in a few others. In the end it is one of a kind and proved to break new ground since its publication.

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