Before the World Forgets Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson
Just ten years ago, an entire continental literature was up for easy grabs. But who cared about planting a flag in the South Pole of letters?
The seventh continent, birthplace of the concept of wind-chill, has a colonial population not much bigger than its graveyard of Edwardian explorer-corpses, preserved like frozen peas along various expeditions’ competing paths to earth’s southernmost point. Never mind a native literary tradition. Antarctica lacks a native language. Since Robert Falcon Scott first trudged forth into the island’s interior in 1901, would-be Antarctic scribes have run up against their subject’s uncooperative nature, which curses chroniclers with Depression, madness, frostbite of the digits, and death.
It took a full century and the building of centrally heated infrastructure for the island at the bottom of the world to produce something like a minor classic. Its author was a young American writer and itinerant contract worker named Nicholas Johnson, whose memoir Big Dead Place upon publication superseded a century’s worth of self-serving ice-beard memoirs and press-junket hackery.
If you’ve never heard of Johnson or his book, neither have most people. He was a cult author with the Seattle indie press Feral House. His scattered pockets of admirers couldn’t depend on lit blogs for updates about the HBO Big Dead Place series-in-development (produced by and possibly starring James Gandolfini) or a rumored sequel about Johnson’s recent contracting stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. On November 28, it took a while for word to spread that Johnson had stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and made wall art of his cerebellum at his home in West Seattle. His death passed unnoticed in America’s newspapers, including The New York Times, which in 2005 compared him to Joseph Heller, and the dailies of his native northwest, where he first attained self-publishing fame for his mid-90s ‘zine, Shark Fear, Shark Awareness. Known for its fanatical obsession with galeophobia and sloppy collage art, Shark Fear was a force in the Clinton-era copy shop underground that briefly revived an American tradition Ben Franklin knew as “pamphleteering.” It set the course for the blog that led to the book for which Johnson will be remembered.
Nicholas Darin Johnson was a born wanderer, the kind drawn to six months on, six months off jobs that let you to travel, save, and take half-year vacations. He spent his 20s roving between his native Washington state and a series of Alaskan fisheries and Korean language schools. In 1996, he signed up for the first of several half-year seasons on Antarctica working as a self-described “garbage grunt” on the McMurdo and South Pole bases. He was immediately enthralled and repulsed by the micro-society he found there, a sort of lunar extended summer camp administered by defense and prison labor contractors, and staffed by like-minded freaks and travelers who saw themselves as humanity’s loose material shaken off the edges of civilization to collect at the bottom of the planet. The extreme isolation of it all makes Antarctica a perfect petri dish for a voracious student of human behavior like Johnson. In Antarctica, he also found a place that fed his hunger for the weird and grotesque, a place where frozen fecal stalagmites grow beneath outhouses, requiring the use of plastic explosives, and where the full-moon fiesta never stops. “You have come with images of adventure involving physical endurance and rugged beauty,” writes Johnson. But then, “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.”
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 clichÃ©s 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:
With a single stroke of her pen, the psychologist could have me removed from Antarctica. The blue-collar worker therefore wished to make the white-collar subject comfortable in her new environment by introducing her to unique environmental and social phenomena that she may not have previously considered when temporarily adjusting to a new locale. His experiment consisted of relating geo-specific anecdotes, to facilitate her feeling of acceptance and thereby allowing her response to unfamiliar stimulus to be one of pleasure and nurturing rather than one of hostility and distance…. She would be full of glowing ideas about rough isolation and scientific progress and stark romantic beauty, so I did not tell her that Larryville, otherwise known as the pipe yard, is so named to honor a Navy guy who once managed to fly down a couple of prostitutes…. I told her about penguins and weather. “Isn’t that something!” she shrieked. “Isn’t it!” I screamed.
Big Dead Place is a good primer on the communications strategies of defense contractors. Raytheon warnings of disciplinary action are addressed to “employees,” while exhortations to chip in are addressed to “the community.” Johnson was tickled black when those who handled trash for an hourly wage were encouraged to think of themselves as part of the private but bloated-with-government-money Raytheon “family.” A holiday message from the CEO thanks its Antarctic employees for their contribution to company successes like the AIM-9X tactical missile and advanced technology for missile defense. Back in Washington, Johnson received a health newsletter distributed to Raytheon employees. Titled Taking Care, it included articles such as “Kindness Is Its Own Reward” that suggests Raytheon employees “Tape coins to a pay phone with a note saying that anyone who needs it can use the money… These random acts may lead to a new way of living — one that is positive and full of compassion!” Another article distributed by the missile maker recommends dealing with anger by engaging in “slow yoga-like exercises to relax muscles and ease tension.”
Johnson wasn’t the yoga type. He wrote with distance and deadpan, but he never tamed his spleen. His writing buzzed with an undercurrent of disdain. “Since the culture at the U.S. stations has been imported from the United States, the small polar society is by default structured so that any scheming pecksniff will feel comfortable making a lunge for the reins,” he wrote.
And since the average American community regards “freedom” as any state of affairs other than being trapped in a tomb without food, the obedient and the unscrupulous find a welcoming place to play drug dog. Privilege [is] dispensed by bureaucracy like food pellets at the end of a maze. Any departure from the nickel-and-dime bureaucracy is met with howls of official protest. Without these comforts exported to Antarctica from the homeworld, we would no doubt be crippled by the culture shock, but after a season or two, whether on Mars or on the brightest moon in the belt of Orion, we will set up shop with the same bag of tricks. Why not go back to the homeland, then, where at least there are fresh California oranges and New York steaks?
The answer, in Johnson’s case, was the attachment he developed to Antarctica’s history and its bizarre version of American civilization in a bottle. According to his friend and fellow Antarctica writer Jason Antony, he felt at home in desolate whitescape: “Big Dead Place is first and foremost an expression of love. He loved the place and its history so much that he wanted to make it better. And he did.”
Johnson wasn’t really interested in the Antarctic’s extreme environment for its own sake. He mostly liked the way it made everything else so stark, like the ultimate white screen on which to project shadows and watch them dance. His thoughts on Antarctica’s defining feature, extreme cold, are explained in relation to PR: “For working outside in the wind and cold, shoveling, sawing, welding, whatever it is you do, The Program, in periodic memos and emails, will tell you that you’ve made a ‘sacrifice’ for ‘science.’ But the cold doesn’t consider your sacrifice. The cold doesn’t care about you one way or another. The cold is not trying to use you in a media spin. Nor is it trying to make an example of you. You do not blame it, begrudge it, or believe you can profit from an insincere alliance with it. Your experience with the cold is so personal that you hardly ever mention it.”
Persistent cold was part of why Antarctica is suited to meditative states of mind, though Johnson preferred the noise of technology and civilization to what he called “the tranquilizer of cosmic perspective.” One summer, shortly after he arrived, he sat down with a couple of guys about to rotate out. He realizes that their bearing is “calm and steady, thoughtful and deliberate,” while he possesses “the agitated enthusiasm of one who has had a break from the ice.”
The ice can still kill you. Johnson describes watching a group of adventuring skydivers whose chutes don’t open due to some weather-related malfunction, giving them the appearance of “three black dots in the distance that meet the horizon, as silent as falling fleas.” Their body bags “rattle like bags of crystals” when handled by the rescue workers, who later return to bury boots upside down in the snow near the disaster site. The jokes continued into the season, and Johnson reports that skydiver costumes were popular at the next Halloween party at McMurdo base.
Following the release of Big Dead Place, Johnson worked as a contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. His multiple stints in the latter were to be the subject of another book for Feral House. But he struggled to put the experience into words. The time in Afghanistan depressed him in a way that his years in Antarctica never did. “He had made a lot of Afghan friends, and the subject of their use by contractors and the occupation was very personal to him,” says Parfrey. Unable to write, Johnson struggled on and off with alcoholism. Although he checked into rehab and stopped drinking in 2012, he had acquired the arguably more dangerous habit of reading Thomas Ligotti, a reclusive horror writer and intellectual historian of nihilism who makes Stephen King read like a peppy master of inspirational Christian fiction. Ligotti’s essays are extended riffs on the idea that life is nothing but a brief, horrifying, meaningless, and futile exercise in existential terror management. If any book is fatal in combination with depression and possession of a loaded shotgun, it’s Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a 250-page elaboration of his belief that “life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.” The answer to this problem, concludes Ligotti, is a refusal by the species to reproduce, thus bringing an end to a nefarious process that will “last as long as a single cell remains palpitating in this cesspool of the solar system, this toilet of the galaxy.”
After years away from the ice, and neck-deep in Ligotti’s writings, Johnson reapplied to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Somehow, despite being the author of a blistering expose of the government project, he was hired. But the day before Johnson was to fly to Christchurch, he received a letter indicating that someone at Raytheon had discovered the Internet: “It has recently come to our attention that, writing as Nicholas Johnson, you are the author of Big Dead Place . It is our opinion that due to the nature and content of this book, you would not be a suitable candidate for employment under the Antarctic Support Contract.”
This blacklisting was apparently too much. Johnson decided he was done managing terror, and with a single blast of buckshot, ended it. He leaves behind a funny book and a few zines that can help the rest of us manage our own terror for a few hours. It’s an accomplishment deserving at least a small monument at the bottom of the world for the author of Big Dead Place, who may very well have been planning all along to do the deed down there, and join the frozen corpses of the continent’s Heroic Age, whose pointless glories and sufferings he knew so well.