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Before the World Forgets Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson

The author of "Big Dead Place" cut his own life short, but left behind a gripping personal story.

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After Johnson’s first post-Antarctic return to Washington, he typed up his journal entries and posted them at BigDeadPlace.com. His caustic vignettes of life in the United States Antarctic Program were empty of the familiar clichés encouraged by the public affairs office that regulates media access to the island. In place of waddling penguins, Johnson told of the continent’s true mascot, the skua, a native gull that feeds on baby penguins, seal placenta, human trash, and each other’s faces. Instead of paeans to the U.S. presence as the embodiment of selfless international cooperation, he documents the Program’s origins in early Cold War geopolitics, breaking down the careful maintenance of Antarctica as a “cultural construct” by a government “whose primary national interest is physical occupation.” That, and the ant-farm like study of human behavior in extreme isolation. As Johnson did, NASA psychologists find the bases useful for studying the human psyche, in particular the ways life on a lunar colony might begin to make people cuckoo for Coco Puffs.

But mostly people returned to Johnson’s blog for the funny camp and work stories. Johnson was a connoisseur of administrative absurdity and the games people play. He depicted American Antarctica as a windswept corporate-bureaucratic farce ruled by the defense giant Raytheon and its subcontractors. An endless stream of company memos and piped-in political-correctness made the whole enterprise a comic caricature of paternalistic middle management incentivizing. Johnson survived it all by manipulating it for his own pleasure, while his colleagues endured it like “reptiles ignoring game show incentives that urge them to reach for the bigger prize.” His carefully observed portraits read like scenes from an Office Space set on planet Hoth, where company psychologists urge a population of 1,200 to attend Men’s Groups, Women’s Groups, and Diversity Issues Groups, and where station managers begin All-Hands meetings sounding like company-town bosses circa 1902, declaring, “I am the area manager. I am the manager for 700 miles in every direction. Anyone who says anything bad about Raytheon is out of here.”

Fans of Johnson’s blog included Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey. In 2002, Parfrey convinced Johnson to compile his stories for publication and round them out with new material. It was a sound editorial instinct. The book version of Big Dead Place amounted to more than the sum of its blog parts. Between stints on the ice, Johnson spent months in the Antarctic libraries of Christchurch, New Zealand, steeping himself in the records and journals of the continent’s so-called “Heroic Period” starring explorer-adventures like Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, as well as their oft-doomed and mutinied crewmembers. Big Dead Place weaved this history of Arctic exploration and colonization into its contemporary black comedy and appeared in 2005 to plaudits. The Times write-up evoked Catch-22. The London Times hailed it as a “savagely funny M*A*S*H on ice” and named it a book of the year. Jerry Stahl called it a “weird masterpiece.” HBO snatched up the rights.

If HBO does produce Big Dead Place, it would be nice but surprising if they didn’t dull the class edge to Johnson’s writing, or his attention to the ways hierarchies are enforced and deployed. One of the first things he explains in Big Dead Place is the entrenched class structure that rules the bases of Antarctica. The society down there is no post-capitalist Star Trek enterprise, but a tightly regulated system of rights and prestige doled out by Raytheon and the government among scientists, bureaucrats, management, and the contract workers. There is another tiered points-and-perks system within the world of contract workers, known as “Ice Time.” Johnson loved to probe these systems, playing laboring idiot with management, and relaying the stories in the voice of social science filmstrip narrator. Here he is sitting down for a mandatory psychological evaluation:

 
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