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

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  568 ratings  ·  107 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, 260 pages
Published June 1st 2005 by Feral House (first published April 1st 2005)
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Average rating 3.72  · 
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 ·  568 ratings  ·  107 reviews

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Start your review of Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
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
Jan 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: chez-moi
Nick was an acquaintance of mine down on the Ice, and so I’m obviously a little biased. He was an incredibly bright guy and had a wicked, dark sense of humor. You can sense this in his writing. I had really been looking forward to both the HBO version of the book and his next book, whatever it may have been. Alas, Nick tragically took his life in 2012.

As far as the stories in the book go, they are a very accurate portrayal experience at McMurdo Station. The absurdly bureaucratic government cont
Jamie Collins
Apr 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
This is a fascinating account of life in Antarctica, but it’s also terribly cynical. It’s sometimes darkly amusing, and sometimes gratuitously crude. The writing is excellent, except when it’s nearly incoherent. The book is badly organized and feels like a random collection of anecdotes interjected with random pieces of historical trivia. The author dwells on conflicts between employees and management, describing the sort of drama, dirty politics and petty tyranny you find at almost any job, onl ...more
Aug 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Northern K Sunderland
Aug 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 27, 2015 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. ...more
Apr 02, 2010 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
Aug 11, 2019 rated it it was ok
There's no excuse for a book about such an interesting topic to be so thoroughly mediocre.

The book was adapted from a blog the author wrote about his experience working in the National Science Foundation's Antarctica Program. Unfortunately, neither the author nor the publisher seems to have wanted to invest any time or effort in editing, so the individual blog posts are stitched together without any amendments to make them fit together. This leads to persistent inconsistencies throughout the tex
Aug 14, 2016 rated it liked it
working at antarctica is just as fucked up as academia
(added to amazon wishlist 06/06/16)
Christopher Roth
Mar 04, 2014 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
Jul 11, 2007 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
Jul 06, 2009 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.
Nov 15, 2015 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. ...more
Rick West
Apr 25, 2009 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.
Daniel Cornwall
Sep 19, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Abandoning this book. While somewhat informative and sometimes funny, overall the first half has been mean spirited, rude, crude, crass and occasionally vomit inducing. Life's too short to continue.

Despite my one star rating, do consider reading if you want to work in Antarctica.
May 02, 2015 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 ...more
Corey White
Apr 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Acerbically funny. A great book if you want to shatter your Antarctic illusions and get frustrated at bureaucratic bullshit reaching even to the end of the world.
Christine H
Mar 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Funny as hell! I laughed out loud.
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars, rounded up for the complete uniqueness of the subject matter. This is written by a guy who worked as a manual laborer in the US Antarctic community/camps. Bits of trivia:

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
Jul 17, 2022 rated it liked it
I imagined this would be a book with tales of ghostly frozen landscapes, legends of underground UFO bases and Asperger's disorder having Scientists going stir crazy like Jack Nicholson in The Shining but instead it's some cynical guy talking shit about his years working in Antarctica for some Military Industrial Complex (Raytheon?) subsidiary contractor washing dishes and whatever else random menial work they can assign him as the company does their best to swindle workers out of any bonuses, pa ...more
Shelley Carr
Sep 09, 2018 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 ...more
Collin Lysford
Aug 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nick Johnson certainly has a way with words. This is a peppy book about an interesting place, and he keeps it moving and moving fast. He simultaneously manages to be a classic burnout stoner, exacting history nerd, and dedicated blue collar professional, and the changing of the hats is done pretty seamlessly. There's a lot of funny stories mixed with a pretty bleak view of the bureaucracy at the end of the world.

While I understand that he's not exactly in a position to cite of these claims, it's
Peggy N
Oct 11, 2017 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. Catch-22 on ice. ...more
Oct 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Fascinating and funny look at the burocracy of Antarctica. A good but somewhat biased overview of the US involvement but unfortunately, some parts are dated and even cruel. But for anyone who's been, the details are accurate for the most part as far as living and working there. You immediately know why he was black listed but it produced a quick and entertaining read. ...more
Tanya Spackman
Aug 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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, 2018 rated it really liked it
The writing is not good, but the story and topic are compelling and keep you reading and asking questions. If this would have been Krakauer then I can only imagine what a difference this book would’ve been!
Trish Mcintosh
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ant-arctic
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.
May 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wry, amusing and maddening

Well told, catch-22 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.
Nov 11, 2019 rated it liked it
This book had a load of interesting content and flashes of great writing... but it just felt so disjointed!
At times I wondered if I'd skipped a page by mistake, as it jumped around so much.

Also, the Russian Bride story was so harsh.
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
It was amusing with history. I was at McMurdo 10 yrs after the book was written and he has facts and sarcasm right on. it hasn't changed much. He is a good woodsmith & author. Well written. ...more
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