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Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica Paperback – April, 2005

4.0 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When Johnson went to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program (devoted to scientific research and education in support of the national interest in the Antarctic), he figured he'd find adventure, beauty, penguins and lofty-minded scientists. Instead, he found boredom, alcohol and bureaucracy. As a dishwasher and garbage man at McMurdo Station, Johnson quickly shed his illusions about Antarctica. Since he and his co-workers seldom ventured beyond the station's grim, functional buildings, they spent most of their time finding ways to entertain themselves, drinking beer, bowling and making home movies. The dormlike atmosphere, complete with sexual hijinks and obscene costume parties, sometimes made life there feel like "a cheap knock-off of some original meaty experience." What dangers there were existed mostly in the psychological realm; most people who were there through the winter developed the "Antarctica stare," an unnerving tendency to forget what they were saying mid-sentence and gaze dumbly at the station walls. And if the cold and isolation didn't drive one crazy, the petty hatreds and mindless red tape might. Though occasionally rambling and uneven, this memoir offers an insider's look at a place that few people know anything about and fewer still have ever seen. Photos. (July)
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Review

"No one has done more to change the way we understand Antarctica. Nick was unflinching in his critique of bureaucracy and authority in the United States Antarctic Program, but mainly he sought to create a dialogue within and about Antarctica that cut through cliche and hypocrisy in order to describe things as they really are, in all their glory and strangeness." -Progressive Review

"It took a full century and the building of centrally heated infrastructure for the island at the bottom of the world to produce something like a minor classic. Its author was a young American writer and itinerant contract worker named Nicholas Johnson, whose memoir Big Dead Place upon publication superseded a century’s worth of self-serving ice-beard memoirs and press-junket hackery." - Alternet
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 276 pages
  • Publisher: Feral House (April 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0922915997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0922915996
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Justin Mason on June 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
'Big Dead Place' is an excellent collection of anecdotes, discussing life on the ice at McMurdo Base and the US South Pole Station. I've long been a fan of the author's website at [...] , so this book went straight on my wishlist once it was available at Amazon, and I've just finished it in time for Midwinter's day.

It's a fantastic book -- very illustrative of how life really goes on on a distant research base, once you get beyond romantic notions of exploration of the wild frontiers. (Like many geek kids, I spent my childhood dreaming of space exploration, and Antarctica is the nearest thing you can get to that right now.) A bonus: it's hilarious, too.

Unfortunately it's far from all good -- there's story after story of moronic bureaucratic edicts emailed from comparatively-sub-tropical Denver, Colorado, ass-covering emails from management on a massive scale, and injuries and asbestos exposures covered up to avoid spoiling 'metrics'.

If you want to get a good idea of what the reality of life exploring the wild frontiers on behalf of the US government is like, this book is an eye-opener. Here's hoping they work out some way to trim some of the bureaucratic fat before that lunar base George Bush keeps talking about is set up...
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Format: Paperback
Having spent 12 years working "on ice" and at every US Station and Ice Breaker, I can say this: Johnson has only scratched the surface on the lunacy, idiocy and buerocratic hell the US Antarctic program has become.

Since Raytheon has taken over as contractor, it's been one laugh after another. HR isn't about helping employees, it's about sticking to the corporate policy with a velvet hammer.

It'll be a fine day when the last Rathioyd leaves Antarcitca, but like the old song by The Who, it'll be "...meet the new boss, just the same as the old boss..."

Having met and known a few Antarctic treaty signatories, I'm sure they're doing a slow spin in their graves.
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Format: Paperback
Big Dead Place is a great combination of Antarctic history and Antarctic humor. It's fascinating to see that a place that could be described as an icy hell has somehow become a beaurocratic one as well. While the tone of the book is lighthearted, with an emphasis on humor, it's clear that Johnson cares deeply about Antarctica. This book gave me a great insight into Antarctica, one that I doubt I could have gotten elsewhere; it did so whilst being funny! If you get this book, you will be entertained and you will learn something about what is probably the strangest place on the planet. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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By J at Kwaj on January 6, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Our years in McMurdo mostly overlapped although our jobs did not.

I can verify at least 1/2 of the book's events are definitely true (saw it), 30% are very likely true (saw immediate evidence), 15% are probably true (saw evidence of evidence) and only about 5% are beyond my knowledge.

A clear example proving high levels of eductation do not necessarily lead to utopian existence.

Having disparaged the place, it is amazing how many people become addicted to the place including the book's author and myself.
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It is hard to classify this book is it a memoir? Is it adventure? Is it travel? I guess it's just eclectic. At any rate, it is different from anything I have read before.

The book is a personal narrative of a man living and working in Antarctica for a year and, while doing so, covers the history of Antarctic exploration. it does a wonderful job of this. The appropriate historical references or stories appear as they are relevant to the author's experiences. This is a difficult thing to accomplish and I applaud him for that.

It also tells the mundane aspects of working in modern day Antarctica, which is much different that I, and probably you, have imagined. The author is essentially a garbage man, but garbage in the Antarctic is very different and sometimes dangerous. It covers life in the isolation, which is not as isolated any more, and living in close contact with a small number of people. It also covers the abuses dealt to the workers by a powerful, uncaring company ethic.

The most interesting (?) and unusual part of the book is the incredibly vulgar, graphic and cuss-laden language. If you are offended by such things, keep away! I have never read anything like this but perhaps I am more cloistered than I thought. It does lend the narrative an air of authenticity and immediacy that would otherwise be lacking. Real people under these circumstances probably do communicate this way.

So, why a four star rating instead of five. I thought it went on a little too long. I'd give it 4.5 if that were an option
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Format: Paperback
Anyone approaching this book as a sociological critique of human mores in an extreme environment is looking for a different book. Oh, there's plenty of sociology, plenty of critique, and plenty examples of human mores in an extreme environment; but these are the simple byproduct of an intelligent man's opening his eyes and recording what he sees as an Antarctic contract/wage worker.

On the bounds of journalism, not quite Gonzo, not quite straight reportage, the author manages to weave enough Antarctic lore, daily observation, and well-researched history into the narrative, so that the reader is ever mindful of the locale. This alone is a feat of work, for at times one would swear from the corporate shenanigans at the Bottom of the World that this was written as a script for the movie version of "The Office," and rejected for being too real.

The end result--as is the case with most accounts of human bureaucracy in a sublimely inappropriate venue--is hilarity. Think of it as a Monty Python sketch on a continental scale, funded by the American government, subcontracted to an arms manufacturer, and played by a diverse cast of world citizens who can never escape the moral of the story: that things just aren't fair.
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