The Last Place on Earth

Review: The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole, Roland Huntford, 1979, 1999.Last Place on Earth

The Prussian General Moltke the Elder divided military officers into four categories using two criteria: smart-stupid, ambitious-lazy. There is a place for almost every type. The smart and lazy can be commanding officers. The smart and ambitious can be staff officers. Stupid and lazy officers can serve in the line.

But there’s no place for the stupid and ambitious officer. He must be drummed out of the service. He’s a menace to the military and his troops.

Under that criteria, if British polar exploration of the early 20th century would have been conducted on strictly military lines, Captain Robert Falcon Scott would have been expelled from service.

Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole is, along with the doomed Franklin expedition and the Shackleton expedition’s spectacular survival, the most well-known episode in polar exploration. Huntford’s biography is a thorough and convincing attack on the legend of Scott and was hostilely received in Britain on its publication. Scott doomed himself and his man through incompetence and poor leadership. Continue reading



South Pic

Review: South: The Endurance Expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton, C.V.O., 1919; South With Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctica Expedition 1914-1917, 2001.

I’ve been fascinated with Shackleton’s story since third grade. It is the classic story of survival against the odds, an expedition where everyone lived to tell. I came across some illustrated kid’s book about it and later on read Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I’ve seen a few documentaries on it. Shackleton even shows up in David Hambling’s Cthulhu Mythos novel The Elder Ice.

But, in the desultory manner things get done around here, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I actually read the primary source document for the voyage – Shackleton’s own book.

The broad outline of the story is this. Continue reading

Adventures in Reviewer Parallax: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras

On January 22, 2014, I was at a flea market in Texas.

I was in a hurry, and I’d heard the title of this Verne novel, saw it was polar story, so I grabbed it off the shelf without a closer look. I thought I was getting Verne’s sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

For the record, that would be Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery.

Review: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Jules Verne, trans. William Butcher, 1864, 2005.

Adventures of Captain Hatteras
Cover: “The Explorer A. E. Nordenskiold” by George Rosen

This was Jules Verne’s second novel and the first of his Extraordinary Journeys, a series that continued for 50 years and 63 more books.

It was popular in its day. Four English were done in the 1870s, but Butcher, as the back cover would have it, “the father of Verne Studies”, says none were subsequently done until his.

Real polar explorers found it one of the most accurate pictures ever written of life in the Arctic — or so a footnoted source says.

There’s no doubt Verne turned over a library for this book. He was a devotee of polar exploration though somewhat hampered by not reading English. However, many polar chronicles had been translated from English into French.

The plot of this two-decker novel has the ship the Forward departing Liverpool on April 6, 1860 with Richard Shandon, second-in-command, on board. The captain, whoever he is, will show up later. Shandon is known as a reliable and knowledgeable seaman with experience of Arctic waters. Dr. Clawbonny joins the ship later in the voyage. He’ll be an affable, steadfast character with an encyclopedic knowledge of polar exploration and the polar clime – though most of it is was learned through books. He’s looking for more actual experience. Continue reading

A Wretched and Precarious Situation

Normally, I like to read tales of polar exploration when the thermometer drops below 0 Fahrenheit. However, Amazon has its own schedule.

Review: A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, David Welky, 2016.Wretched and Precarious Situation

The history of polar exploration is full of disappointment and failure. However, there aren’t a lot of tales of polar exploration that descend into not only outright dissension but murder too. And none of those are documented so personally by the principals involved from not only their published writings but personal journals and diaries.

In 1913, the Crocker Island Expedition set off to explore an island, neigh a continent, sighted by Captain Robert Peary in 1908 on his penultimate expedition to attain the North Pole.

Weather, logistical problems caused by World War One, and public indifference stretched the expedition out to four years. The brutal polar clime, the long nights and social isolation, the deprivations of sledding and short provisions, changed the men. Some discovered inner reserves and talents, some realized the importance of loved ones they left, and some psychologically disintegrated.

Welky pulls the reader through the story in a high state of suspense partly because of its obscurity and the parallax view of all those personal and largely unpublished writings. The frontpiece is of a map – but only of the Arctic as theorized in 1912. Further the suspense, Welky narrates his story chronologically. Characters drop out of the story unexpectedly and a nice coda is provided for the principals’ post-expedition lives. Continue reading

The Arctic Grail


Subzero Reading

When the temperature dips below 0 degrees F and I happen to be between books, it’s time for an Ice Age book.

There are only a limited amount of science fiction novels that fit that requirement — especially in an age where global warming is feared. Continue reading