Bood Review From the New York Times:
Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
By Nicholas Johnson
Illustrated. 260 pages. Feral House. Paperback. $16.95
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
Published: August 1, 2005
Most of us have not been to Antarctica. We see it in our imaginations and on the Discovery Channel as Earth's last pure and pristine continent, largely unsullied by humans, where nature is both virginal and at her most extreme. The few who venture there are explorers or scientists, braving the unforgivingly murderous climate with only the noblest intentions.
Nicholas Johnson has been to Antarctica, and he sees it very differently. In his often-appalling, funny memoir, Antarctica is a frigid, featureless wasteland inhabited by a few bad-tempered penguins and thieving gulls, and infested by polluting, squabbling humans.
No scientist or explorer, Mr. Johnson did grunt work over five summers and two winters at McMurdo Station, the largest of the three permanent United States scientific bases on the continent. He scraped pots in the cafeteria kitchen, drove forklifts, rolled barrels of frozen human waste out to the dump when the wind chill was below minus 50 degrees. If his tales of life at the bottom of the organizational chart contrast starkly with government-stamped depictions, they also have a mordant ring of truth.
McMurdo has a summer staff of 1,200 that dwindles to some 250 for the dark winter months. Only a handful are scientists measuring the ozone, strapping video cameras to seals to study their movements under the ice, or manning the Cosmic Ray Monitoring Laboratory. The vast majority are support staff, "everyone from dishwashers and mechanics to hairdressers and explosives-handlers."
American stations are operated jointly by the federal government's National Science Foundation and a corporate contractor, currently the Raytheon Polar Services Company of Denver. This unholy fusion of government and corporate bureaucracies is "structured so that any scheming pecksniff will feel comfortable making a lunge for the reins," Mr. Johnson writes. "Any departure from the nickel-and-dime bureaucracy is met with howls of official protest." The posting of notices stipulating niggling rules and regulations is so common that Mr. Johnson once posted mock notices stipulating that the posting of notices stipulating the foundation's regulations was against the foundation's regulations.
If Joseph Heller wrote "Catch-22" today, he might set it at Mr. Johnson's McMurdo.
Most of Mr. Johnson's anecdotes are about Antarctic workers coping not with the cold, but with one another. There's a vicious pecking order determined by how much "ice time" you've put in and where you're stationed. The ice-bearded hearties at the bleak Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (which Mr. Johnson says "looks like an elf village overrun by a blue-collar tribe that worships Martian gods") look down on McMurdoites and those manning the relatively balmy Palmer Station as wimps, and everyone dumps on new arrivals. Tourists and visiting Washington dignitaries are met with undisguised hostility.
Cabin fever, especially in the dark winter months, metastasizes into a virulent plague, fought off with prodigious alcohol consumption (the drinks cooled with "the cleanest snow in the world"), furtive sex, politically incorrect theme parties and the making of wacky movies with titles like "Cape Hades." Everyone monitors the scuttlebutt about promotions and overtime far more diligently than their meteorological instruments.
Colorful characters abound, with nicknames like Boozy the Clown, Seņor X and Big Hands. There's the guy who stood out on the ice waiting for the aliens to land, and the guy who has a tattoo that says "Tattoo." There's a local chapter of Freemasons, continuing a long tradition - the explorers Robert Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Adm. Richard Byrd were all Masons of rank.