Big Dead Place
by Nicholas Johnson
4 stars - I'll never watch a documentary about Antarctica in the same way again
ALR Green - but very sensitive readers are warned of brief depictions of animal abuse
Antarctica. It's not the pristine, good will, camaraderie, adventure place you might have imagined from reading news reports and watching documentaries.
Nicholas Johnson offers up a "grunt's eye" view of living and working in Antarctica. Sure, in the beginning there was nobody there. Just penguins, seals, and some determined explorers. But now it's a big deal. There are 1200 summertime residents and 200 winter residents. Why are they there? Well, yes, a big part of it is to continue scientific research. But once you get enough people, you're going to have to start bringing in support staff.
The management of the American support staff is contracted out by the US government. Their responsibilities include construction, food prep, and waste management. Waste management is no small thing as everything introduced by people has to be removed from the continent and sent back to the US for "processing." Yup, that includes poop.
The easiest way to summarize Mr. Johnson's depiction of the cadre of contract support staff is "sweat shop." These are workers who spend long days trying to get the job done while abiding by the somewhat arbitrary rules laid down by the mother ship. It's not pretty.
Actually, just a few weeks before the tourist ship arrived, a few tons of sausage buried in the ground during a previous era had been discovered by a Fleet-Ops operator who was drilling into the earth in preparation for a new building down by the sea ice. With the drill he struck a noxious pocket of primeval sausage slime that squirted onto his face, searing his eye with a swift yellow infection that puffed up half his face and put him out of commission for about a week. The earth-sausage mixture was excavated from the frozen ground and dumped in piles beside the road, where a squad of GAs was dispatched into the feeding swarm of skuas to separate the meat from the rock and to throw it into triwalls that we banded up and loaded in milvans to be exported to the United States.
The writing is a bit haphazard. There are passages of brilliant description, but also some stories where it is difficult to know who the players are or what's really going on. That's OK, and he still gets four stars for being a whistle blower on "the man" and how governments can lose sight of what's really going on at their outposts.
Mr. Johnson was not awarded another contract to work in Antarctica after his book came out. Instead, he went to work in Kabul, Afghanistan, and came back a changed man. He returned suffering from depression and drinking heavily. Despite getting clean and sober, he found his existence unbearable and took his own life in 2012.
Is Mr. Johnson's depiction of life in Antarctica exaggerated? Perhaps. But it is completely plausible. It's how I imagine things devolving on the Space Station or on any settlement we might ultimately make on a new planet. He doesn't tell any stories that don't jive with my experience of human nature and large corporations.
Know also, that images and stories that come from Antarctica are very carefully orchestrated. We want positive press. We want to see the good deeds and brave people. We don't want to know about people getting fired for being injured on the job or questioning decisions. We don't want to know about ill workers getting bumped from evacuation flights so the higher profile scientists can have a seat. We certainly don't want to know about the maniacal behavior of the early "heros" of Antarctic exploration.
Oh, and one more thing. Why is the US really so firmly established in Antarctica? Is it all about scientific inquiry or is it also just a little bit about being able to claim ownership, should that continent ever become a politically strategic base?
It's a sad book.