Some years ago, this reviewer took two government-sponsored journalist trips to Antarctica and was so entranced by its beauty, hostility...

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“Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica”
by Nicholas Johnson
Feral House, 276 pp., $16.95

Some years ago, this reviewer took two government-sponsored journalist trips to Antarctica and was so entranced by its beauty, hostility and intriguing sociology that I not only consumed forests of newsprint, I was inspired to write two Antarctica-based novels. The place will do that to you.

Seattle native Nicholas Johnson has spent far more time in Antarctica than I have — five summers and two winters as a support staff “grunt,” washing dishes, hauling garbage and driving heavy machinery — yet wound up at an opposite Pole, if you’ll pardon the pun. His Upstairs-Downstairs jaundiced view of polar bureaucracy is funny, insightful, sarcastic and curiously without wonder.

He’s a witty guy, and must have liked something about Antarctica to spend so much time there as a contract worker. But after reading his book, I felt he (and any reader) hadn’t been there at all.

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If you want the antithesis of the hit movie “March of the Penguins,” then “Big Dead Place” is it. This is Antarctica as M*A*S*H, a claustrophobic outpost of fumbling bureaucrats, rigid rules, incompetent contractors, and staffers who range from the merely eccentric to the dangerously lunatic. Johnson makes fun of everyone (including visiting journalists like me) and much of the satire is dead-on.

Anecdotes about a balmy staffer waiting for space aliens, or a clueless supervisor pouring antifreeze into his boots, are fun.

Yet this is a book more unbalanced than the most rapturous National Science Foundation press release. Johnson, who now lives in Vancouver, hardly mentions — and seems to have no interest in — the science that all those dishwashers support. He seems more fascinated by caches of frozen human waste than the Ice Age landscape. When his co-workers are excited by penguins, he finds them silly. Explorers are presented as nutty. Landscapes that took my breath away leave him, er, cold.

He also reports as gospel every oft-retold story of Antarctic blunder, mayhem, prurience, or squabble, without ever questioning if any of it might be exaggerated, or if the bureaucrat reviled as a dunderhead might have another side. This is blog journalism: clever, freewheeling, rambling, unverified and cheerfully unfair.

Johnson is right that there is a gulf between the beakers (scientists) and grunts that robs the latter of glamour. He’s also right that the government tries to romanticize Antarctic research to help justify its colossal expense. “Big Dead Place” and Johnson’s Web site,, is a legitimate perspective.

But Johnson’s assembly of rank-and-file gripes and goof-ups is disappointingly narrow. Poke fun if you will, but Antarctic research remains difficult, dangerous and important in an age of ozone depletion and global warming. I suspect the author’s work hauling garbage for scientists, mundane as it was, may contribute more to humanity’s progress than this cynical, gossipy, joyless book.

William Dietrich is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine. His most recent novel is “The Scourge of God.”