Terra Incognita has been called “the first funny book about Antarctica,” and fair enough: Though Sara Wheeler writes about the generation of ice-bearded, cold-blackened men who froze and died in the first penetration of the continent, and even leans on the writing they left behind, her book has little in common with those dusty explorers’ tomes. It is funny, and thoughtful, and keenly aware of the intense oddity of the modern Antarctic experience, with its high-tech pods of labs and dorms at the end of a long, flimsy resupply chain, surrounded by the rawest, emptiest wilderness imaginable. In her seven months there, Wheeler hops from one isolated base camp to the next, each one maintained by a different nation—the Americans, the Italians, the Kiwis, the Brits. She gets drunk in an informal dorm-room speakeasy at McMurdo, pitches her tent in remote field camps, and ventures out onto the ice. Through it all, she captures the peculiar hold the polar regions—both north and south—seem to have on nearly everyone who travels them.
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