Thursday, May 16, 2013

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

Though I missed Antarctica during my month of vicarious vacations, I made up for it with this first book of May. I originally bought it for my wife, who was intrigued by a friend of a friend working in Antarctica. She never read it, but I think she'd recognize many similarities with her own workplace. Antarctica should be called the "world's coldest bureaucracy."

Contrary to popular belief, Antarctica isn't full of scientists—most of the workers are support staff who provide food, dispose of waste, repair things, etc.* These service industry jobs are managed by a large corporation serving as contractor for the National Science Foundation. With the layers of governmental and corporate management acting arbitrarily, it is amazing anything is accomplished down there.

Big Dead Place is a bit hard to follow at times. It is mostly an anecdotal memoir which seems scatter-shot at first, but eventually the broader theme of bureaucratic disenchantment emerges. Johnson addresses the notion that harsh weather conditions drive workers away:
I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica's tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.
He proceeds to document a fair amount of that bullshit in excruciating detail. He weaves tales of South Pole explorers into his narrative, and it is obvious that despite his bitching about the way the program is run, he truly finds Antarctica fascinating.

It isn't all riveting, though. A better editor would have excised many of the dorm hijinks stories, for example. Still, Johnson offers a valuable perspective on living and working in Antarctica. I think it's a good book for the curious (like me) and a mandatory book for anyone who wants to work down there.

While doing research for this post, I learned that Johnson committed suicide in December 2012.

* This reminds me of my experience working at the American Bar Association. People often asked me what it was like to work with a bunch of lawyers. But I didn't—the only lawyers I knew there were at least three levels above me, and naturally I didn't interact with them. The ABA provides services to members who happen to be lawyers, but most employees are administrative assistants, computer programmers, magazine editors, data entry clerks, etc.

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