Empire Antarctica (Antarctica)

Empire Antarctica book coverby Gavin Francis

The frozen continent is one of three I haven’t visited. Not many do, except scientists, penguins, and soldiers. Is it a country? Technically no. Britain, the US, Germany, Argentina, Chile, and others have “research” stations there. In the Heroic Age, explorers died there – unnecessarily, as the author points out. It was just 13 years after Shackleton’s desperate rescue of his stranded men that Byrd flew an aeroplane over the South Pole.

Because of the remoteness and extreme weather, they say it is harder to extract a person from the British base camp Halley than it is the International Space Station. During a certain time of year, the sun rises then sets five minutes later. Emperor penguins are the only form of sentient life (that we know about) who live there year round.

I say that WE know about advisedly, since Eastern culture and some indigenous tribes believe that all forms have sentience, including rock and ice and water. The ice of Antarctica was recently found to be around 140,000 years old.

This is the story of a British doctor’s one-year stay at Halley base camp and peripherally, his study of Emperor penguins.

Love and Annoyance

I found both in this book. Concept and execution = fascinating. The way the author ponders philosophy, religion, and history in conjunction with his Antarctic experiences makes it more than just a collection of fascinating facts or a “slice of life” memoir. It is a pity he did not study George Orwell, however – he might have used fewer “25-cent words” and “purple prose” in his descriptions of the scenery. I have a master’s degree, and I ran into 2/3 words on every page whose meanings were unknown to me. To be honest, they jerked me out of the story and it read like someone striving for legitimacy – trying to impress. Plain language is usually best.

Emperor penguins

Emperor Penguins

It would also have been well, had the author explained the meaning of certain events for non-scientists: Example:  “Polar magnetism has switched at least 30 times in the last 5 million years.” Switched how? Switched between what? To what? What causes this?

In addition, he gives distance measurements in metric (despite the fact that I know they use miles in Britain just like we do in the US) and weight measurements in kilos, and temperatures in Celcius. This meant that I never knew how big, how far, or how cold something was. But then he explains perfectly obvious terms like “mukluks”. (Obvious to North Americans like myself that is. 😉

Something else he doesn’t explain is why they can only bathe once per year.

Despite these shortcomings, I really did love this book.  I don’t want to experience extreme cold, so thanks to Gavin Francis for writing about it so I didn’t have to.

On January 17, 1773:

the British ships Resolution and Adventure became the first known to cross the Antarctic Circle. According to the author they came within 150 miles of the Antarctic continent. What fascinates me is the idea of a world in which you could still discover continents unknown (to you).

All my generation has left is space, though I was born in the year men first walked on the moon. We hope for mystery and we long for adventure. What we’ve got is product. If Scott and Shakleton had been alive today, their Nansen sledges would have been plastered with Walmart stickers like NASCAR racers. Ugh.

Captain CookThe author makes a lot of comparisons between the hardships of early expeditions and the relative comfort of the Halley base today. He has a computer, though only periodic hand-cranked dial-up Internet. He has antibiotics, but if he falls ill, as the station’s only doctor, none of the other 13 “winterers” can treat him. And he says studies have been done showing that the mental satisfaction (or was it health) of sub-Antarctic personnel has been shown to go down the less danger they are in. Hmm.

I guess it takes a certain type of person to want to go so far, for so long, away from their fellows. Or maybe they’re just more realistic about how risky and uncertain life on this planet really is.

The Last Word

Despite the tortured purple prose referred to earlier, this is a super chill armchair read. Five bars of South Pole chocolate!

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