A few weeks ago, I finished reading Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler. It’s a travel book (see subtitle), about places where virtually everyone works and nobody travels.
I enjoyed the writing style, and the breadth of developed Antarctica that she covers is impressive. The book does a good job of conveying the feel of the environment there, and mixes in a nice amount of background information too. Terra Incognita is certainly a fun read, and it helps to explain why people want to go to Antarctica, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the author’s experience there is exceptional.
Throughout the book, segues take a form that seems all but impossible to anyone except a Distinguished Visitor (DV, in Antarctic lingo) or someone on an artist and writer grant, as Sara Wheeler was:
…I retrieved my bags and decided on impulse to call into Helicopter Operations to see Robin, the helicopter queen and the personification of American can-do culture.
I had been intending to visit a group of geologists at Lake Mackay, and decided to try to get out to them while waiting for the next plane to Seismic Man’s camp. Ross, the project leader, had invited me, and as it was only an hour away by helicopter at 76 degrees south 162 degrees east I knew I could catch a lift fairly easily…
There’s of course nothing wrong with this sort of experience, or writing about it, but it is very different from that of most people involved with the program.
I put this book in the same category as Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods; it’s a good book, a fun read, and gives the washed masses a way to understand. Both Terra Incognita and A Walk in the Woods have doubtless generated lots of public interest in their subjects. But, reading the book probably doesn’t give a very accurate picture of what to expect, if you follow in the author’s footsteps.