Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

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Unexpectedly, this is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time.

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The author describes his experiences as a low-level worker at the McMurdo base in Antarctica and systematically destroys every romantic conception we have about the continent, including the supposedly lofty scientific goals of the U. Essentially, he reveals that very little science goes on there, that the entire Antarctic operation is mostly a wildly expensive flag-planting operation, using science as a p Unexpectedly, this is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. Essentially, he reveals that very little science goes on there, that the entire Antarctic operation is mostly a wildly expensive flag-planting operation, using science as a pretext.

Thus, most of what people in Antarctica do all day is And it is all governed with totalitarian bureaucratic cruelty by the National Science Foundation. I know, I know, that doesn't sound funny so far, but trust me. Here's a preview, in three words: Okay, are you in? Jul 11, Meredith rated it it was amazing. I'm actually reading this for the second time, extending my fascination for extreme labor. Aside from finding the general ice hysteria that Johnson describes very funny downright lol, to coin a phrase , after a few beers I find myself wanting to write him a letter asking him to be my friend.

Especially interesting are the present and historical description of Antartica's mass magnetism; from scurvy infested, megalomaniacal expeditioners to 21st century grunt workers who drill into piss, shit an I'm actually reading this for the second time, extending my fascination for extreme labor. Especially interesting are the present and historical description of Antartica's mass magnetism; from scurvy infested, megalomaniacal expeditioners to 21st century grunt workers who drill into piss, shit and 5 year old sausage laced ice while walking a fine line of crucifixion from the big guns at Raytheon.


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Please also look at his website, bigdeadplace. Aug 22, Northern K Sunderland rated it really liked it Recommends it for: Ever since I was a boy, I've wanted to live in Antarctica and study all sorts of science-y things out there in the coldest, most uninhabitable place on earth. This book has explained to me the truth about the people who work there, and more importantly, the companies that employ them. It starts to feel like you're reading the journals of a college frat boy after a while, and it's contents can really be considered comedy more than documentary.

But that aside, it really is quite informative, and a g Ever since I was a boy, I've wanted to live in Antarctica and study all sorts of science-y things out there in the coldest, most uninhabitable place on earth. But that aside, it really is quite informative, and a good read. Nov 15, Katherine rated it really liked it.

Interspersed with remarkably similar insane history of Antarctic exploration and its attendant BS. Recommend for anyone who is feeling disgruntled and has a broad sense of humor. Jul 06, Kristopher rated it really liked it. I never thought working at Barnes and Noble for 5 years would be so similar to working for a government scientific research company in Antarctica. They even have a guy named Ted the Racist. This is less about Antarctica than it is about bureaucracy, micromanagement and people going mad from small amounts of power.

Very, very funny and wonderfully frustrating. Apr 25, Rick West rated it liked it. Alan, a friend who lived and worked in Antartica for five years gave me this book. Reading it was like reliving his late-night phone calls from The Ice. If you have some idealized notion of what is happening at the research stations on the ice, you will find this an eye-opener. May 02, Jean rated it liked it. Appalling rules and regulations. I didn't not enjoy it but am unlikely to pass on to friends. Mar 28, Christine H rated it really liked it. I laughed out loud. Apr 22, Brook rated it really liked it.

The US decided that you had to have a presence on land to claim it. Several countries established camps. The US then decided and other nations agreed that you had to be doing significant scientific work, or something else related to exploration of the environment, thereby making those other outposts pointless this 3. The US then decided and other nations agreed that you had to be doing significant scientific work, or something else related to exploration of the environment, thereby making those other outposts pointless this was done to keep the Russians from making a claim, as much of the world saw the US as preferable.

Only the US has enough money to maintain a scientific base at Antarctica. Science is only done there in the summer months this is a "secret". So we do experiments there or at least ship scientists there, sometimes all they do is record temperatures to keep up the facade that we might prevent other nations from laying claim. You are cooped up without transport or new faces for most of the year. Yes, there is as much sex as you'd imagine. Yes, it can be extremely dangerous. Yes, there is poor management, crushing bureaucracy, and incompetent leadership that leads to horribly low morale.

Yes, the environment offers the opportunities for sociopathic and vengeful leaders to make life hell. Yes, there will be a hundred bits of trivia, things you would never have thought of. You will come away with lots of interesting facts to bore others with at parties. The writing isn't great, but interesting subject matter. There is a series of correspondence not mentioned in the text that is worth reading for a "sick burn" moment.

Sep 09, Shelley Carr rated it really liked it. I really enjoyed reading this. I've read a lot of books about the experience of being in Antarctica, working in antarctica, but most of them are sort of waxing poetic, usually from the perspective of artists and writers who come down during the antarctican summer for a few weeks.

This book is from the perspective of a guy who worked in the galley kitchen and in waste management for several years both winters and summers , so he knew the real scoop. Unlike most of the books I've read about Ant I really enjoyed reading this. Unlike most of the books I've read about Antarctica, he discusses the cringe-inducing bureaucracy that contract workers must face as long as they come down to the ice. I had no idea it was so frustrating, it's like every bad HR experience and terrible boss I've ever had, rolled into one, with a dusting of snow and ice.

I learned a lot, and may look at McMurdo differently now after reading this. Its not all bad, plenty of humorous stories abound. Oct 11, Peggy N rated it it was amazing. If you're fascinated by Antarctica of any era pick this up and you will not put it down. An insider's view of what it is really like to work down there, a clear-eyed view of the ridiculous layers of bureaucracy that spring up from any human enterprise, but especially government-inflected ones, laced with pure love of the extreme outdoors.

Aug 13, Tanya Spackman rated it really liked it Shelves: While the writing is mediocre, this is a brilliant, maddening tale of bureaucracy gone crazy, of management incompetence and pettiness. Having endured lesser but recognizable actions from government contractors in a place not quite so remote, I find his experiences completely believable. Jan 01, Victoria rated it really liked it Shelves: The writing is not good, but the story and topic are compelling and keep you reading and asking questions. Wry, amusing and maddening Well told, catch esque look behind the curtain of life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Filled to brimming with well turned phrases; "bona fide public buffoon" is one of many gems. Apr 26, Trish Mcintosh rated it it was amazing. This was a fascinating insight into the isolated culture of McMurdo Station winterover culture. A mix of mundane isolation and maddening corporate control. I recommend this for people with interest in small community quirks.

Aug 30, Sam Ferree rated it really liked it Shelves: Oct 20, Aboydgilman rated it really liked it.

Big Dead Place :Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

Instead, readers are introduced to McMurdo Station and South Pole Station—claustrophobic, diesel-soaked outposts filled with foul-mouthed garbagemen, drunken ironworkers, hammer-swinging cooks, and an impressive cohort of petty bureaucrats. This Antarctica, try as one may, cannot be co-opted as a metaphor for the perseverance of the human spirit; it is a metaphor for an entirely different aspect of the human condition, a stupor brought on by an unbalanced ratio of purpose to activity, with the scale tipped decidedly to the latter.

This illusion, Johnson explains, quickly dissipates as they find themselves performing thankless tasks in a glorified supply depot, attending teeth-grinding policy meetings and safety classes, and all the time being watched over and reprimanded by a team of shameless, power-drunk corporate lackeys, little Eichmanns on ice. Johnson carries out his fervent debunking—his own higher purpose—through a skillful blend of Antarctic pop history and anecdotes from his personal experiences at McMurdo.

The former consists of tales of madness and mayhem in varying degrees, focusing on juicy tidbits that most conventional histories omit. Puss-filled cracks opened on their faces. When it comes to his own time on the ice, he is far less prone to romanticize. He relates his own experiences with a dark and brutal humor that can alternately set the reader on edge, boil his blood, and bust his gut. And he loves every minute of it. Despite the overwhelming number of these stories, however, Johnson still manages to convey what it is he loves about McMurdo: Sep 24, Deidra rated it really liked it.

An intriguing book about the strangeness of one of the most isolated places on Earth If you're looking for descriptions of Antarctic wilderness, ripe with adventure and danger, do not pick up this book. Instead, the author tells story after story about the hilarious, odd problems that come wi An intriguing book about the strangeness of one of the most isolated places on Earth Instead, the author tells story after story about the hilarious, odd problems that come with working in such a remote station including the oddball people he's forced to live with for months and months at a timepeople who think nothing of screwing, partying, or writing others up for burning incense.

The book also provides some choice history about Antarctica, focusing pretty heavily on the darker side of the many "heroic" excursions made there a prominent explorer, now heralded for his humane treatment of sled dogs, didn't order enough dog food and encouraged them to eat each other. Which makes sense, since this book is all about revealing the horrendous bureaucratic nightmare that is the U.

From ridiculous supervisors to underpaid employees on the verge of violence, much like most American institutions, the overruling work philosophy seems to be "We do it that way because that's what they told us to do. Never mind if it doesn't make sense.

Big Dead Place :Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

You'd love to think that they're doing everything in their power to advance studies there; sadly, they're getting caught up on inter-office memos, job advancements, and budget woes. Although I laughed out loud at many parts imagine "Office Space" set on the Planet Hoth from "Empire Strikes Back" , some of the "off-color" conversations the author relays were kind of pointless. Yeah, we get that even though you're supposed to be working at a highly-academic research base, everyone still makes dick and boob jokes; but so what? It seems like he tries a little too hard to convey the whole crassness of the project, which gets boring.

Luckily, most of the book is devoted to more interesting anecdeotes. Overall, it's a good story about a strange place, and will probably make you hate corporate America even more than when you started it. Which is a good thing. Feb 08, Deborah Biancotti rated it really liked it Shelves: Hilarious account of living and working for a big, dumb corporation in the big, dead place known as Antarctica. And yes, there are penguins. Johnson spent time working in the kitchen and in rubbish removal and his "deep research in this area sometimes to the bottom of the bin " pays off, with details that us non-visitors would probably never guess at.

Antarctica's main export is waste. They quit because of the bureaucracy. The author has also done a thorough job of researching the history of discovery in Antarctica, finding most explorers either dishonest or narcissistic or both , and his cynical and witty observations on the population of Antarctica, both contemporary and historical, are one of the delights of the book. As is his sense of the absurd: It is the middle of the night on a Wednesday, and you wake up to pee.

You emerge from the women's room. A man in the hall runs past you with a frozen pig under his arm, pursued by a lurching, drunk clown. There are exactly two too many chapters on the bad bureaucracy that plagues the place, especially when it comes to the punitive HR system employed by the National Science group patrols McMurdo Station.


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  • And there's an entire appendix outlining a practical joke to ridicule one of the co-workers which - even given the guy was apparently a jerk in real life - comes across as mean more than funny. But what the hell am I complaining about? This is a group of people who dumped a frozen pig in a drunk clown's bed. If you skip those little flaws, you're in for a fun, informative read.

    Oct 23, Bruce Luyendyk rated it really liked it Shelves: Although Big Dead Place was published over eight years ago it is back in the spotlight. HBO planned a miniseries based on it. The actor James Gandolfini pushed the project as a producer and was expected to star in it. Peter Gould of Breaking Bad was to do the screenplay. Gandolfini died this past June.

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    Ironically, Johnson committed suicide in late Whether the project goes forward or not remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the book remains a first in memoirs of Antarctic experiences in its un Although Big Dead Place was published over eight years ago it is back in the spotlight. His own experience was as a dishwasher and waste handler over many seasons. His many stints include a stupefying winter-over at McMurdo and a summer season at South Pole. This is not the story of heroic explorers facing injury and death every day. It is about ordinary, exuberant and talented folks who get trapped in a mindless bureaucracy, and are at times mistreated by NSF and their contractor Raytheon.

    They come with dreams and are met with organizational chaos, an industrial setting and harsh working conditions. Characters are eccentric, and it is revealed early in his book that this is a main requirement, for better or worse, to survive in the U. He tells the story like an absurd surreal foggy dream - at times like a continuous fraternity party and others like a stretch in a minimum-security prison.

    Johnson is nevertheless enthralled by the whole of his experiences and with Antarctica. He has a deep love for it that his cynicism and humor does not mask. The narrative is clear on why, a unique place with unique people, who deal with unique circumstances. He objects to the anthropomorphizing of Antarctica as an antagonist, a common thread of virtually all published work on the Antarctic experience.

    Rather, the antagonist is the system. Antarctica is only a big dead place. The book is outrageous and funny in many parts, a bit dry in others. In the end it is one of a kind and proved to break new ground since its publication. Apr 29, Melanie rated it really liked it Shelves: It is hard to classify this book is it a memoir? I guess it's just eclectic.

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    I thought it went on a little too long. I'd give it 4. One person found this helpful. Kindle Edition Verified Purchase. I really enjoyed reading this book. It's full of tangents and tales that loop back around and is a good commentary on the absurdities that arise when entrenched, old organizations try to work as they always have in such an alien place. A great sneak peek into what NASA might face in the future, bureaucratically-speaking, as we venture forth.

    There are also some fascinating snippets of Antarctic history jabbed in strategically that accentuate well. I wish his passion for the place could have continued along with him. On the downside, it's feels choppy and disjointed at times. But not at all damagingly so. I would very much have liked to know some of those characters better.

    I don't generally look at or pay too much attention to other folk's reviews until I have written mine, but in this case I was fascinated by some of the poor reviews of this book. Let me warn, then, the reader thinking about picking this up: This is not a book about science. Nor is it a travelogue. It is not about penguins, though a few do appear. What it is, is a very funny, cynical and jaundiced look at what it is like to actually live and work there.

    In Defense of Management

    Better, more accurate subtitle: The scientists get all the glory and I have no problem with that , but for every scientist on the ice, there are a dozen support people making the science possible. People who cook, clean, maintain equipment, dig out air strips, etc. This book is about those folks and the often mindless red tape and silliness imposed upon them.

    Having taught in the public school system of a large US city, I can kind of relate. This is an insider's look and as such, is not particularly pretty. It is, however, very funny, in a mordant way, and filled with the kind of characters who, well, would find working at physical, often menial, jobs on the ice appealing. A lot of interesting historical vignettes, too. The man knows the history of his place. In point of fact, I picked this up after seeing this referenced and recommended in that book. I was not disappointed. This is highly recommended, assuming you're not all caught up in looking for penguins and wonder.

    An interesting sometimes biting, sometimes humorous, sometimes rant-like commentary on the ups and downs and his organizational puzzlements of life as an operations support worker at the US South Pole and McMurdo stations from a fellow who spent several seasons doing just that. He committed suicide at his home in the US a couple of years after penning this read. Brings out some of the pragmatic considerations and the social conumdrums of close quartered living in an extremely nature hostile environment devoid of natural local habitational needs beyond air.

    Brings to the fore the scifi fantasy of deep space travel and off Earth habitation. I would really like to get a job there and have applied for the winter site manager position at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. I fell in love with Antarctica when I read Kim Robinson's book about it. I wanted so much to go! But- although his novel has a lot of corporate idiocy, it is as nothing compared to what actually happens.

    I'm not just referring to this book- which is scurrilous and excellent- but also accounts by people I know who have spent time on The Ice. This really is a great read. The gossip is brilliant, especially as it illuminates the corporate idiocy that makes people's time on The Ice mor4e miserable than it needs to be; when surveyed, most people say that it's not the harsh conditions, but the corporate BS that makes things miserable.

    It should not be that way. I will never visit Antarctica. And yet- I care about it passionately. We could- and should- do better. Nonetheless, this is a viciously funny read, with a lot of interesting historical data folded in. Very recommended, for Antarctica buffs. See all 43 reviews. Most recent customer reviews.

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