Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, by Gavin Francis
If you go to Antarctica, does it mean you are going to write a book about it? This book is a strange one. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad one by any means, but this book is an odd one, in that it is part memoir and part attempt to understand the history of a region that is far outside of the scope of world history and one with a very limited tradition of human involvement. The fact that the author has such an English perspective makes the author’s human interest in Antarctica rather focused on the English, although at least a few other nations and their involvement in Antarctica are discussed as well, such as the cabin fever experienced by Russians and the American approach to bases, for example, as well as the various national claims as well as some Falklands Islands drama, which is at least Antarctica-adjacent in nature. But if this book was missing penguins, it would not be nearly as good a book as it is. The author realizes this, and just about anyone else reading this book also realizes this and feels glad, one would hope, that there are so many penguins around to cheer on and to read about.
This book is about 250 pages and contains a variety of chapters that are connected to the author’s experience of being at Halley Research Station in Australia for a period of about a year or so. The book contains a mix of materials that include a large degree of personal memoir about the author’s experience in qualifying to go to Antarctica with a research assignment as a base doctor and his travels there as well as his experiences in coping with the traditions of the base and the stringent demands of life in Antarctica. This is perhaps the most obvious case for the book’s worth in my own eyes, as it relates personal experience and observation that is worthy of interest. It is the remainder of the book that is more puzzling, including a lot of whining about the British experience in Antarctica, which includes a lot of discussion of people like Shackleton and Scott and their experiences and ultimate deaths in and near Antarctica and the failures of the British Antarctic experience. This part is perhaps necessary for the author to relate to his reading audience, but it was less of interest to me personally since I would have preferred a bit more discussion of the Antarctic claims and experience of a more diverse lot of people including Americans, Chileans, and Russians, to name a few. The third element in the book’s contents is discussion about the fauna of Antarctica, especially penguins, and the author’s desire to see them in their native home, and that too is easy enough to understand and appreciate.
Among the most baffling aspects of this book is the fact that it was published in the first place. Although I enjoyed the book a great deal, I have to say that I do not know who I would recommend this book to. Do you like stories about loneliness and isolation and do you wonder if you have what it takes to spend more than a year isolated in Antarctica where dangers range from hypothermia to cabin fever to leopard seals? I know my taste for solitude is the sort that makes this book easy to appreciate, but I don’t know how many other people find the thought of solitude and an icy fortress being around scientists and penguins to be appealing. Apparently the publisher thought that this would be appealing to a large enough audience and I have to concede that they may be right, at least if my own appreciation of this book is any question. In reading this book I have to wonder if the author came to Antarctica with the idea to write a book about it, or if other people have the same idea in mind of traveling to a remote and inhospitable place with a publisher waiting to polish up and publish an account of it for fun and profit. If it is the case, we should expect to see more books like this one.