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

3.75  ·  Rating Details ·  345 Ratings  ·  74 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 276 pages
Published June 1st 2005 by Feral House (first published April 2005)
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Community Reviews

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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
Apr 12, 2015 Sg added it
Didn't find it particularly funny but it was a very interesting book about working in Antarctica. Also enjoyed reading about the history of the explorers and their challenges.
Christopher Roth
Mar 06, 2014 Christopher Roth rated it it was amazing
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
Adam  McPhee
Nov 07, 2015 Adam McPhee rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, far-corners
A polar garbageman documents the arrival of PR/human resources culture to Antarctica's McMurdo station, supplemented with e-mails he's liberated from the Antarctic recycling program. Was going to be an HBO series, but presumably the death of James Gandolfini and the suicide of the author put an end to that.

The combination of Raytheon's toxic corporate culture with low sunlight, extreme isolation and the continent's lack of a governmental authority to appeal to is rather harrowing. Imagine the St
Apr 02, 2010 Mitch rated it it was ok
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
Jun 21, 2008 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 ...more
Dec 09, 2015 Katherine rated it really liked it
So good. This book is about corporate bureaucracy and BS and idiocy, as demonstrated in the crucible of Antarctic work/science stations, where once you're there you are pretty much cut off from the world and stuck with the system and all its nonsense. 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.
May 02, 2015 Jean rated it liked it
Easy to read! Interesting historical insights. Appalling rules and regulations. I didn't not enjoy it but am unlikely to pass on to friends
Christine H
Mar 28, 2015 Christine H rated it really liked it
Funny as hell! I laughed out loud.
Northern K Sunderland
Dec 05, 2008 Northern K Sunderland rated it really liked it
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
Sep 14, 2016 Daryl rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
I have long been fascinated with Antarctica; don't ask me why. (On a side note, I really loved Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, Antarctica, and highly recommend it.) This memoir, written by someone who lived and worked (as a garbageman, essentially) in Antarctica for a year, made me realize just how fucked up and mismanaged the place truly is. Reading this took away much of my desire to go there. The place is a bureaucracy run by people in Denver who have no idea what it's really like on "the ice." ...more
Aug 24, 2016 stephanie rated it liked it
working at antarctica is just as fucked up as academia
Oct 03, 2009 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. 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
Apr 30, 2009 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.
Mark Speed
Jan 03, 2016 Mark Speed rated it really liked it
Oddly enough, I read this whilst on a trip to Antarctica. It's funny in a M*A*S*H sort of way, with the author in the role of Hawkeye.

It's a good mix of biography about life on the bottom rung of employment in the US base at McMurdo - i.e. relationships, work, insane bureaucracy - along with facts about the Seventh Continent, from politics to exploration legends.

Many of us could have written a similar tome about our place of employment. And if we'd been part of a government (any government, any
Syzygous Zygote
Jun 05, 2016 Syzygous Zygote rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Big Dead Place is a super fun memoir of living at the Antarctic's McMurdo station, as told by a garbageman. The vast majority of people staffing these stations are grunts rather than researchers, so hearing the story from this perspective is fantastic, unique, and incredibly relatable. In addition to the gobs of "did you know?" trivia on keeping the station up and running, it takes an unflinching look at the administrative bullshit and petty politics that these folks deal with, as well as what h ...more
Sep 01, 2014 intrepideddie rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, funny
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
If you read this book to learn more about the pristine setting of Antarctica and how people cope with living there you will certainly find this out and you will be very surprised. If you think you will learn more about noble scientific research you will probably be disappointed as frequently there are very few scientists even present, there.

The majority of the characters appear to be residents (actually the worker bees) of a weird frat house with a cast of weirder characters. It is also a revela
Jun 26, 2015 Melanie rated it really liked it
Shelves: humor, adventure, memoir
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
Deborah Biancotti
Feb 27, 2012 Deborah Biancotti rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fic
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
Feb 13, 2013 Mike rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 26, 2008 Aboydgilman rated it really liked it
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
Jul 27, 2009 Patrick rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 17, 2007 Ryan Chapman rated it liked it
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
Sep 24, 2007 Deidra rated it really liked it
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
Alice Chau-Ginguene
Oct 16, 2014 Alice Chau-Ginguene rated it it was amazing
Amazing book. Really enjoy it. I was immediately sucked into the story after a few pages. After a few chapters, I decided to write to the author to tell him he is a beautiful writer. Only to find out sadly that he has taken his own life last year.
A must read for anyone who is interested in Antarctica, stupid management, life of a seasonal worker, or American culture in general.
I am saying it again, the author is a beautiful writer, yes including the swearing.
Such a loss that he is gone...
Alisha Erin
Feb 05, 2016 Alisha Erin rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016
This was an interesting read, mostly because i think Antarctica is fascinating, and the psychological effect on people down there is even more fascinating. He had some great stories and insights into the non-scientific experience of McMurdo.

Complaints: unstructured narrative, tended to be vulgar and profane, entirely too much complaining about beauracracy
Oct 14, 2009 Lara rated it really liked it
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 really liked it
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
Feb 18, 2013 Chris rated it really liked it
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
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