Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
The subtitle of Nicholas Johnson's book, Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica (Feral House, $22.50), is misleading. What we actually get is a look into the world of McMurdo Station, the American work centre in Antarctica where Johnson was part of the support staff. If you're hoping to learn about dedicated scientific researchers pursuing noble goals, you will be sorely disappointed. The station's not "strange and menacing", either.
McMurdo Station, a town with large buildings and street lamps, is only one part of Antarctica, something that the author largely ignores. Unless you know something about that strange continent, you might come away with the notion that all of Antarctica is an outpost of the good old U.S.A. Johnson condemns "science" for "occupying" Antarctica while he and his fellows are themselves just cogs in the old colonization game. Give them enough videos and video games, pop music and posters, and your average Americans can make any end of the Earth look like a suburb of Cleveland. Unwitting? The author seems oblivious. He writes that there are five grunts like himself hauling garbage and clearing tables for every scientist, which only means the grunts are doing five times more occupying.
Johnson's a good writer, however, with a smooth and easy style, and he provides insights that purport to be about behaviour under stress and isolation but are really insights into behaviour that is simply human and universal. You regret his need to hide behind jejune scatology and a frat-boy gonzo pose. Consequently, when he drops the act and comes on sincere, usually in footnotes, you don't trust him.
Here's a comment that occurs midway through the book, "There long ago in that frozen outpost of exploration, I had received a fantastic blow job." My opinion of this is the same as my opinion of the whole book: "Who cares?"