Non-fiction: Alexa Thomson: Antarctica on a Plate (Random House Australia, 2003)
Many different kinds of people go to Antarctica. Scientists, adventurers and the people who keep the infrastructure running. Often, this last category produces the best books. Alexa Thomson writes about her experiences as a cook at an Antarctic tent camp providing support for a semi-improvised airfield.
It’s a fun, fluffy book about Thomson’s subjective experience of Antarctica. Some of the best stuff involves her experiences at the neighboring Russian and Indian bases. She writes about being a woman in the macho Antarctic environment very well. The stuff about disrupting Indian porn routines is especially telling.
Art book: Paul D. Miller: The Book of Ice (Mark Batty Publisher, 2011)
Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky, created a multimedia performance piece called Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica in 2009. This book is a part of that project. It’s kind of a documentation book or an artbook, a scrapbook of graphics and images.
The meat of the book is a selection of propaganda posters and stickers for Miller’s proposed revolutionary People’s Republic of Antarctica (the concept itself lifted from John Calvin Batchelor’s novel of the same name). The posters are fun, but treated in isolation, the book is a slight collection of Antarctic geekery. There’s a couple of graphs about climate change, some notes and interviews from the artist, and a bunch of old photos, but the main thesis is probably best explored in the actual Terra Nova artwork.
Novel: Mat Johnson: Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2011)
Mat Johnson’s Pym is a stellar example of what an Antarctic novel can be. It’s the story of a black American university man preoccupied with Edgar Allan Poe and issues of race. He gets sacked from his university for failing to serve in the diversity committee, and decides to explore the truth of Poe’s novel The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in Antarctica. To understand racial oppression it’s necessary to understand whiteness, and what could be more white than Antarctica?
Pym is a very funny, very smart book. Johnson writes with a wonderful awareness of the Antarctic literary tradition and his take on issues of racism and race is deftly articulated. The best Antarctic novels often use the continent as a tool to explore a theme or an issue, and that’s what Johnson does very well here.