Flannery is the Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum. This book recounts several of his expeditions in Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya in the 80s and 90s.
He’s the opposite to Douglas Adams. In approaching some similar topics in his ‘Last Chance to See’ Adams was primarily a writer. Flannery is primarily a biologist – the writing came second. Thus there’s not the wit, and the style is often understated. In some cases this is quite charming as he pretty casually relates some harrowing incidents (such as getting stuck alone in an underground crevice). In contrast his vocabulary can get a bit ostentatious: he’ll use always use a word like ‘ossuary’, for example, rather than graveyard, and in one case he used a word I’ve forgotten now that from the context must mean something like overeating, but didn’t even appear in my complete Macquarie dictionary. (Ah, another amazon reviewer had the same problem, although they were impressed by the obscure vocabulary, while I was unimpressed by same: 'farcarted' gets nothing from any online dictionaries - the only place it turns up in a google search is in these perplexed amazon reviews. Maybe it's an in-joke.)
These are exotic places and creatures, and Flannery capably recalls some real adventures. Part of the strange appeal of this book is shaking your head at some of the near-insane deprivations and risks his biological obsession has entailed (hence the insightful description of another reviewer, ‘bloody mad scientist’). Moreover half the fascination is anthropological. He generally does very well walking the line between eulogising and demonising the tribal Papuans. He ably conveys some of the dilemmas of contact between ancient and modern, such as the time when in all good faith he acceded to requests to sharpen all the knives in a village, but then was appalled to see several villagers accidentally cutting themselves deeply because they’d never had anything but blunt edges. He does tend towards the assumption that any loss of traditional culture is automatically bad, but honestly allows us to see some ugly things that challenge this assumption.
Towards the end of the book, as much to his chagrin as ours, we’re not able to merely enjoy the excitement of discovery of species because of the context of ugly mistreatment of Irian nationals by their Indonesian conquerors. I got the feel that none of us wanted this to be a ‘political’ book, particularly not a partisan one, but in telling his story it becomes unavoidable. Flannery again to his credit is very careful not to say ‘all Indonesians’, or ‘all the mining company workers’, but sadly his biological expeditions are somewhat overrun just at the end by encounters with some brutal racism, at times incidental, at others structural.