Terra Incognita

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Originally published in England in 1996, Sara Wheeler’s extraordinary TERRA INCOGNITA: TRAVELS IN ANTARCTICA was finally published in the United States in 1998. While she is the author of two other travel books—TRAVELS IN A THIN COUNTRY (1995) and AN ISLAND APART (1992)—this is the first book that she has had published in the United States. For this book, Wheeler spent seven months in Antarctica in 1995. Sponsored by the U. S. National Science Foundation, she became the first non-American to join the ranks of the Foundation’s Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program. A journalist by trade, she spent two years organizing and preparing for her trip to the bottom of the world. While a number of notable accounts on Antarctica have been published in recent years, Wheeler’s take on the place is unique for many reasons including her gender.

The scientists and support staff who have set up shop in Antarctica are primarily men. It is to Wheeler’s credit that she has the ability to adapt to not only a hostile environment but also to the occasional hostile personal situations brought about because she is a woman. In addition to her account of her own encounter with Antarctica, Wheeler relates what it was like for the early twentieth century explorers who ventured into the then uncharted reaches of such an inhospitable place. Antarctica has been called “an awful place” and said to possess a “terrible beauty.” For the adventurer though, it is one of the most seductive locations on Earth. Wheeler also details the various quirks that the present-day adventurers indulge themselves in when not conducting scientific experiments. Always the keen observer, the author has rendered a great service to those who came before, to those who are there now, and to Antarctica itself in all its raging glory with the writing of TERRA INCOGNITA.