An Arts Fellow's eye on Antarctica

Antarctic circle sign
Dr Sean Williams at the Antarctic Circle, en route to Casey research station (Photo: Zoe Loh)
Tai chi at WilkesCasey sign

22nd February 2017

Speculative fiction author and Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow Dr Sean Williams is currently at Casey research station.

The Fellowship aims to foster understanding of the Antarctic environment and communicate the significance of Australia’s activities there through the visual arts, film-making, performance, writing, education, and music.

Dr Williams says the novel he is researching will depict a meeting of Heroic Antarctic expeditioners and future explorers.

Here he reflects on his impressions so far…

If Antarctica is the last frontier, that makes Casey research station a frontier town, an analogy that holds up to a certain point. It’s certainly small: eighty-odd people when I write these words. The environment surrounding it is inhospitable and full of prospects. Human ingenuity makes life here not just possible, but necessary as well. Everyone has their own reasons for coming.

The analogy fails on a number of important points. Casey is a town with no permanent inhabitants: Station leader, electrician, doctor, plumber and so on all have to leave at some point. Many come back, but most don’t. Each year brings new faces, new skills and new ventures with them.

Similarly, there are no children at Casey and no one is seriously ill. People may fall pregnant or get sick, but no one stays here to have babies or die from their illness. There are graves, but the only people buried in Antarctica died here by accident.

It goes on. Plenty of people at Casey make things, but there is no export of physical goods. Similarly, food is grown here, but only hydroponically under carefully controlled conditions. There are no livestock. There’s no mining, expect for ice cores stretching back nigh on one million years. Your money is worthless here. Everything runs to near-military precision, yet everything takes longer to happen and could be cancelled at a moment’s notice.

Casey is a place of contradictions, where the normal rules no longer apply.

The truth of this hit me within hours of arriving at Wilkins Aerodrome, having flown there in an A319 as this year’s Arts Fellow to research a novel set in Antarctica. My first thought was how the flat expanse of snow and ice resembled Central Australia, if it was spray-painted white. Just for a moment, I was disappointed: had I travelled 4000 km from Adelaide only to trade one flat desert for another? Wouldn’t it have been (considerably) easier to stay at home?

A more lingering glance revealed details that have no analogue in any other landscapes: patches where the surface has melted and refrozen in smooth parabolic waves; strange, fragile sculptures whipped up by the wind; a deep blue light where the surface has been disturbed. Ice is not sand any more than sand is ice. You can make the analogy, but it won’t hold.

Every day at Casey, I’ve been struck by the reality of this statement. Life here is like life back home in lots of ways, but the deeper reality is that it’s like living nowhere else on Earth. Sometimes I feel like I’m quartered on a ship, with living space at a premium. Other times, I feel like I’m in a giant library where even the faintest sound is frowned upon. Then it’s a vibrant clubhouse, with dress-ups, opulent feasts, and dance parties. Part science convention, boarding house, and engineering problem, Casey station is the most fascinating place I have ever visited.

And that’s without even mentioning the view, which currently features thick clouds, dense white snow, choppy black water, and a horizon thick with icebergs.

As frontiers go, you’d be hard pressed to find one better.

Dr Sean Williams, 2016/17 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow