Archive for July, 2009

Blogging Against Racism At the Mountains of Madness

July 30, 2009

So, being informed by reliable sources that it is International Blog Against Racism Week, I have been thinking about ways to relate racism to this particular blog. I doubt Antarctica itself is free of racism, as there is undoubtedly some of it in the various organizations that do work there. But, of course, all Antarctic racism is by nature imported. The indigenous peoples of Antarctica suffer very little discrimination on the basis of race, although they are are frequently the victims of existencism.

But some discussion with my family on the topic of racism within Antarctica came up with a natural connection: H. P. Lovecraft, famous racist and founding father of twentieth-century horror. I’ve long been a fan of Lovecraft’s work, and I made a particular point of reading At the Mountains of Madness in preparation for my Antarctic trip. It is about geologists and their graduate students who travel to Antarctica, so it seems particularly applicable to my own situation; the fact that they are nearly all horribly killed or driven mad by Things Man Was Not Meant To Know makes it a valuable cautionary tale. And Lovecraft’s somewhat tenuous grasp on the principles of glaciology is made up for by his mastery of the creepy.

Like most modern Lovecraft fans I struggle to reconcile my fondness for his work with his grotesquely racist views. On an initial reading Mountains of Madness seems fairly innocuous compared to some of his other work–it simply fails to include any nonwhite characters. However, I recently had an opportunity to read China Mieville’s introduction to a new edition of the book, where he examines it in more detail. Mieville points out that in Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft depicts his views in an even more exaggerated way by describing the history of the intellectual, civilized Old Ones and their servants, the protean, bubbly Shoggoths. In fact, says Mieville, the description of the Shoggoth bears some striking similarities to Lovecraft’s description, in one of his letters, of a normal multi-ethnic New York subway train.

The whole essay is worth reading, if you get a chance. I find this sort of fictionalized prejudice to be an interesting phenomenon; where does an author’s need for a good easily-identifiable set of antagonists start looking uncomfortably like a metaphorical justification for racism? I stopped reading the Redwall series when it unambiguously crossed this line for me, and I sometimes see the phenomenon crop up in other contexts.

So, if I do happen to run across a Shoggoth in Antarctica, perhaps I will stop and see what it has to say for itself. Could be an interesting conversation.


July 28, 2009

Last August, or thereabouts, as I said my tearful farewells to my document management colleagues (hi guys!), I promised that I would blog about my exciting adventures in graduate school. Thus far, most of my exciting adventures in graduate school have consisted of things like learning to solve partial differential equations, which seemed unlikely to hold the interest of an audience. But now I am a few weeks away from leaving for fieldwork in Antarctica, and it seems high time to begin recording my activities.

Answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about my trip:

Q: Do you have to bring your own jacket?
A: No, they supply you with Extreme Cold Weather Gear on your way to the Ice. This does, however, count against your 75lb weight allowance, so one must consider carefully what to pack.

Q: The Ice?
A: This shows up even in official emails from the logistics folks, so it seems to be more or less the Official Nickname for Antarctica.

Q: How cold will it be there?
A: It’ll be late winter/early spring when we get there–just after sunrise–so it will be on the chilly side. However, we’ll be working in and around McMurdo, which is on the coast and therefore rather temperate compared to the interior; the average temperature for McMurdo in September is a relatively balmy -11F/-23C. (For comparison, South Pole station is around -70F this time of year. The record low for Antarctica as a whole is -129F/-89C, recorded at Vostok station. Dry ice freezes at -109F or thereabouts, although apparently there is not enough of it in the atmosphere to actually freeze out into CO2 snow.)

Q: How long will you be there?
A: About six weeks–two out on the sea ice, two in the Dry Valleys, and some extra time for orientation, logistics, labwork, et cetera.

Q: What will you be doing?
A: I’m researching the optical properties of cold sea ice (below -23C) as well as ice on salt lakes in the Dry Valleys. I’ve also made everyone’s life more difficult by tacking on a marine biology project having to do with the slime that bacteria and algae leave behind in the ice, and how that slime might alter the results of our other experiments. I’ll post more about my research later–you should ask me questions so I know what to talk about!

Q: Are you excited?
A: HECK YEAH I’M *ahem* I mean, it certainly does promise to be an intriguing adventure!

I’m scheduled to leave the country mid-August. There is Internet at McMurdo, although the bandwidth is on the low side, so I’ll try to update from there when I can. Meanwhile I will make some posts about the preparations required for a trip to Antarctica, the broader context for my research, et cetera.