Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating

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

3.71 of 5 stars 3.71  ·  rating details  ·  233 ratings  ·  56 reviews
Johnson's savagely funny [book] is a grunt's-eye view of fear and loathing, arrogance and insanity in a dysfunctional, dystopian closed community. It's like "M*A*S*H" on ice, a bleak, black comedy."--"The Times" of London
ebook, 276 pages
Published June 1st 2005 by Feral House (first published April 2005)
more details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Big Dead Place, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Big Dead Place

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 448)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  rating details
I've been hearing about a friend's experiences working in Antarctica for more than a year now. The things she's said have made me cringe at the introductions to most books about the place. This one, though - this sounds exactly like the stories she tells.

So this book is, as far as I can tell, authentic and honest. It's also funny. And it's basically a primer in mismanagement. If you want to laugh helplessly while simultaneously fantasizing about stabbing a bunch of managers in Denver in the fac...more
Christopher Roth
Unexpectedly, this is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. 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.S. presence there. 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...more
This is a book about Antarctica the way most people never see it. It is a memoir of a man who isn't a scientist or an adventure seeker, but a waste management worker on an American Antarctic base working for money and also the experience. It mostly is about the day-to-day life and how things get borring and the same all the time. It also talks about how most of the base is controlled elsewhere by people who don't even live in Antarctica and how most of the rules and prcedures are ridiculous and...more
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...more
I have a few books from Feral House because I can generally count on them to supply me with something weird, though this looked pretty tame compared to their other offerings.

I knew almost nothing about Antarctica aside from that it's very cold and that penguins live there, but a memoir about a small population isolated by frigid wasteland for months was bound to have some bizarre stories.

I wasn't disappointed, and though the author tends to ramble on a little too much about the absurd bureaucr...more
Northern K Sunderland
Dec 05, 2008 Northern K Sunderland rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Adventurers, Frat boys
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...more
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. At B&N we had a guy named Joe the Racist. Small world.

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.
Rick West
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.
If you're looking for a book about Antarctic exploration and adventure, you should probably look elsewhere. This book is more of a scathing and honest look inside the life of a contractor in Antarctica. The Dilbert-esque view of how things operate at McMurdo alternates between hilarity and face-palming incredulity at the apparent incompetence of management.

I have over 15 years of experience with government contracts, so for those not steeped in the tradition of government contractors, let me ass...more
Deborah Biancotti
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. Such as: the stations established for human habitation smell mostly of diesel & can be spotted miles out in a place that lacks any other smel...more
Years ago I met this author in Christchurch. We were both fingees, about to shipped off to McMurdo for the first time. It was arguable which of us had the worst job on the ice - he was a DA, a galley rat on the night shift, and I was a GA, an all-purpose rented mule. I knew he was doing some scribbling while we were there, but I had no idea he would eventually produce this.

I remember meeting him in line to get our cold-weather gear. In order to brand us as low-level grunts we had been issued bro...more
With his rookie offering, Nicholas Johnson has dispelled the government-sponsored, media-authored myth of Antarctica as “pristine frozen laboratory,” an untamed frontier peopled by a brotherhood of patriotic souls who risk their lives hourly for the advancement of humankind through scientific endeavor. 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, an...more
Johnson's book is compared to M*A*S*H or Catch-22, and I can't disagree. I highly recommend it. Big Dead Place is by turns a history primer about how Antarctica has evolved under assault from humans, and an object lesson about how humans haven't evolved one bit in the process. High-school caliber pettiness and jealousy from people with business cards, incomprehensible micro-managing by people 70 degrees warmer, and wonderfully-related (if not unexpected) insights about how a small group of peopl...more
Ryan Chapman
Thought the book is terribly edited and sometimes poorly written, its subject--the quotidien life of an Antarctic base garbageman--is fascinating enough to make up for these deficiencies.

Johnson's book is filled with stories of the bureaucratic hell that is working for the National Science Foundation, a closed system of Catch-22s and prison psychology that adds a slight whiff of investigative journalism. An example: before the seasonal contractors leave, they have to pass a housing inspection o...more
An intriguing book about the strangeness of one of the most isolated places on Earth...and how human bureaucracy finds a way to ruin it anyway. "Big Dead Place" is about the narrator's stays at McMurdo Base in Antarctica, as he works several janitorial jobs over the course of so many years. 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...more
Very funny at times, and also sad and ridiculous and frustrating. I don't think I would make it for very long with what it sounds like these folks have to put up with from management. I thought for the most part this book was well written, but it wasn't organized in any way that made sense to me--it's not totally chronological, and sometimes two parts of one story are seperated by several chapters. Every now and then there are also paragraphs within a section that don't seem to have anything at...more
Andrew Bourne
Jan 20, 2008 Andrew Bourne rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Andrew by:
Johnson's website/blog [] might be better than his offering in print. I wish it started with a bang, rather than rev slowly up to one and then ramp back down. It is really good though.

In a nutshell, we are presented with the real Antarctica, where the bureaucratic institutional nonsense is more pervasive than the ridiculous cold and unapologetic natural forces. It is not about survivalism or penguins, but rather about sticking people in a closed system and granting a portion of t...more
I once longed to work and live on Antartica. This book has dissuaded me from any further pursuit of that dream.
Johnson portrays an administration and workforce that is isolated and mean-spirited and inequitable.
Johnson's well-written accounts of an administration, inept and antagonistic toward criticism, and the silly, unbridled and often cruel hijinks of the workforce, reminded me of "Catch-22" or "Ball Four".
It was the first book I'd read of the Antarctic experience that looked beneath the bea...more
I picked up this book after reading about it via my cousin, who is in the Antartica program. Apparently, the author had spent many seasons in Antartica, including winters. Once the corporate powers that be found out that he had penned this novel, the rescinded his contract for another season. The end result was that the author committed suicide upon receiving the rejection.

A very interesting, well-written expose into the Antartica program! Raw and vulgar at times, but rather humorous. I think I...more
Nicholas Johnson intersperses Big Dead Place with stories of the first Antarctic explorers and their almost (always) tragic fates for two reasons. One, the tales of survival stand in stark contrast to Johnson's less-than-thrilling accounts of bureaucracy and office politics at McMurdo Station. Two, the historical flashbacks give life to a shockingly rote workplace memoir. The Antarctic backdrop may seem intriguing, but Johnson does his best to quickly dispel whatever romantic notions the reader...more
Interesting stories, sometimes, but highly unorganized and difficult to follow his train of thought. Took some effort to get through it.
Well, this was interesting. I knew nothing about Antarctica before I started, and now I know a fair amount. However, it's not what I thought I'd know; very little science and a whole lot of mundane, absurd, and frequently gross details about living in close quarters at the end of the earth where nothing can be taken for granted. I found the lack of clear chronology didn't help my enjoyment of the book, and there were a lot of "inside jokes" that weren't explained well...although much of the book...more
Bobbi O'neal
Started off pretty interesting as I enjoyed learning about life in Antartica but I soon became less interested and bored. I skipped over more and more pages as I got farther into the book.
Big Dead Place is an excellent title for a memoir about life under the thumb of a corporation. The book could be about anywhere prison-like, in that respect (the employees are the prisoners of course; management are the 'screws'). But Johnson is not just 'anywhere' and there is no society quite like this one in Antarctica. He describes all that goes on, the deadening effects of corporate rule, with such humor and in such detail that I myself felt closed in and flattened, yet laughed out loud rea...more
I had had this book on my shelves for a while, but sadly it was the author’s suicide that finally compelled me to read it. It’s a unique take on a unique experience. Filled with cynicism and humor over the absurdities of life and work in Antarctica. Truly it sounds like a frustrating experience, mired by petty bureaucracy. But despite that, there’s something compelling in the way the author writes about his time there, a uniqueness to the experience, both positive and negative.
His argument seems to be that Antarctica is not an exotic, exciting place but a huge government bureaucracy that is to be despised. A real joy killer as I plan my trip to Antarctica. But the writing was so so good I couldn't stop reading it. By the end I was choking on the cynicism, but feeling sorry for Johnson because he never had the chance to enjoy in the beautiful landscape that has me itching to go.
i really wanted to like this book and in the beginning it was quite funny - his description of when they all go and see the penguins for the first time is hilarious!
if only this book had more of that and less about how the cook feels about the housing manager. B-O-R-I-N-G.
give me more adventure, PLEASE!
also, at times, i got a vaguely sexist and homphobic vibe from this guy.
this is one of my favorite Antarctica-related books; Johnson pulls no punches and is unafraid to tell you that McMurdo Station is little more than an insane bureaucracy, a microcosm for the fucked-uppedness of America. he also recounts many bizarre misadventures with his friends and is quite cynical about the perception of Antarctica as a pristine wilderness, and rightly so.
Brings together the historical conquest (or failure) of Antarctica with the daily functioning of the US military bases that now occupy it. Catch 22's Milo Minderbinder has transformed into the corporations in charge of keeping everyone alive and sane in this extremely hostile physical environment. Catch 22 was more fun to read, but there are some funny pranks and moments.
I dream of going there and this is the greatest behind the scenes view ever. The station would be well served if the people he introduces us to would revolt and overthrow the place - the saddest thing in the world is that this little alien world is run by a corporation no different than the one that ruined lasagna for me by running the cafeteria in my college dorm.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 14 15 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
  • An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
  • The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole (Modern Library Exploration)
  • South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the 'Fram', 1910-12
  • Waking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island
  • The Heart of the Antarctic: The Farthest South Expedition 1907-1909
  • The Home Of The Blizzard: A True Story Of Antarctic Survival
  • Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places
  • The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013
  • This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland
  • God Laughs & Plays; Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right
  • Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written
  • Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!
  • Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping
  • Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization
  • Epic: Stories of Survival from the World's Highest Peaks
  • Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor
  • Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth
Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms How to Talk Back to Your Television Set Land How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. Foil: defining poetry 1985-2000

Share This Book