Book Review: Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science, by Rebecca Priestley

Available in bookshops nationwide, this book is being discussed as part of NZ Writer’s Week. Rebecca Priestley’s event Ice Science is at 5pm on Saturday 12 March, and she will talk with fellow Antarcticans Rebecca Priestley, Tim Naish and Rhian Salmon, chaired by Te Radar.

Icv_dispatches_from_continent_seven was pretty excited about this book, having enjoyed Rebecca Priestley’s previous science anthology work, and I was not disappointed. Antarctica is a fascinating place that most of us will never set foot on, and this anthology gives a great sense of what travelling and working there would be like.

The book is arranged into roughly chronological sections covering the first voyages attempting to “discover” Antarctica, early accounts of scientists and explorers who made it onto the continent, the growth of scientific endeavours from the 1950’s onwards, and finally a collection of recent writing on what study in Antarctica can tell us about climate change and our possible future. Rebecca Priestley has selected, edited and introduced each piece of writing to show us who each writer is, where they are and what’s going on at the time that their narrative takes place.

Although “edited” is an obvious description of Priestley’s part in the book, I kept thinking during the earlier historical sections that “curated” would be a more accurate term. As I read, I felt like I was being shown through an exhibition about the history of Antarctic exploration – each piece following on from the next but from a different perspective, well-contextualised and interspersed with pictures and occasional poems. The inclusion of modern poetry is an interesting choice, one that I appreciate in part because it allows small insertions of female perspectives into the inevitably male exploration narratives. I found the poem that starts the book off, ‘The frozen pages’ by Gregory O’Brien, particularly engaging: it gets the book off to a philosophical start, setting the scene for readers to consider the importance of the stories that follow.

The early efforts to reach Antarctica – so distant, so mysterious, so very, very cold – took place in the age of European colonial voyages. James Cook and his crew circumnavigated the area while making scientific observations. French lieutenant Jospeh Dubouzet mused about whether “taking possession” by planting a flag in a new place was ridiculous, before asserting that in this case it wasn’t, and describing the excellent Bordeaux wine used to toast their conquest. James Clark Ross delighted in going around naming things after his colleagues and benefactors. The major difference was that there were no people already living on Antarctica. Therefore the efforts to claim and conquer parts of this last continent did not involve any direct human conflict. There are, however, numerous instances of penguins having a bad time in these early encounters! Just before their otherwise peaceful act of flag-planting conquest, Dubouzet and company had cleared the area by hurling away all the resident penguins, who were “much astonished”. No doubt.

The writers give beautiful descriptions of the unusual and wonderful things they are seeing, while also conveying the discomfort and visceral struggle for survival. I had no idea that the aviator Richard Byrd had worked on Antarctica, but his story about nearly locking himself out while doing a solo meteorological measurement was brilliantly told and quite nerve-wracking. As things took a turn for the worse in Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 diary excerpt (presented as a story about collecting geological samples) I suddenly realised “ohh, we must be approaching the part with ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’”. Actually that exact quote from Captain Oates was not included, but I am sure I will not be the only reader who anticipates it, and realises in the process that the story of Scott’s fatal final expedition has become iconic.

I was somewhat less gripped by some of the more modern excerpts about doing science in Antarctica – not due to any fault of the authors, for each piece is a good example of science writing and explains a particular aspect of physics, biology or cool technical gear very well. I think this is a personal preference: as a social researcher, I found the stories in which the scientist described their personal experience more immersive, while the technical explanations were interesting but easier to skim over. I particularly enjoyed the rather chipper-sounding physicist Colin Bull describing his team’s experiences in the 1950s (struggling across a windy valley while laden with gear, he finds himself repeating a quote from a colleague: “Only another ten thousand feet of this excruciating garbage”), and atmospheric chemist Rhian Salmon’s chatty blog from the early 2000s about a typical day while wintering over. My interest picked up further for the final section relating to climate change: scary and very important.

I will be passing this book on to the earth scientist in my household, who is certain to find different aspects of the stories more interesting. This is therefore an endorsement: people will take different things out of this anthology, and that’s great. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science
by Rebecca Priestley
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249055