Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Terror - Dan Simmons

In my end of year post a couple of months back I said I wanted to read one of the two huge tomes by Dan Simmons on my to read stack this year. This week I decided it was going to be The Terror. My only previous encounter with Simmons' writing is the Hyperion Omnibus I read last year. This much more recent book promised to be quite something else. Where Hyperion is a far future science fiction novel, The Terror is an interesting blend of horror and historical fiction. Add to that my soft spot for books about Arctic exploration and this book should be a winner for me. And it was, mostly.

The novel is based on the 1845 expedition lead by Sir John Franklin in search of the north-west passage. In those days the Canadian Arctic archipelago was far from completely mapped. Several previous expeditions had tried to force their way through the ice to the Pacific and failed. Now they would try again. Equipped with the latest technology the largest expedition yet to explore the far north of Canada sets out for Greenland and the north-west passage beyond. Their ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are last seen in august of 1845 by and American whaler and are never heard from again. Explorers and historians have been trying to figure out what happened to them ever since.

Simmons tells the tale of the ships frozen in the Arctic ice, of bone-chilling cold, back-breaking physical labour and ever dwindling supplies but most of all of the terrifying creature that haunts the expedition and regularly takes one of its members. After two years without a summer and with escape from the ice increasingly unlikely, the officers and crew are forced to make some hard decisions about their future. Hunger and scurvy threaten the crew if they stay, the creature and the cold if they go. And what's worse, the creature is trying to get in...

There is something heroic and often tragic about these stories of polar exploration. On the one hand the reader knows very well that getting themselves in these impossible situations is their own fault. There usually isn't much of a purpose for these voyages other than exploration. More often that not the situation is not helped by the unpreparedness, stubbornness, prejudice and ignorance of those who plan and lead these expeditions. In fact, on the the characters asks himself the question what the hell he is doing on the pole:

So why, wondered Crozier, did a nation like England, blessed to be placed by God in one of the most gentle and verdant of the two temperate bands where man was meant to live, keep throwing its ships and its men into the ice of the northern and southern polar extremes where even fur-wearing savages refuse to go?
Chapter 16 - Crozier

That quote nicely sums up the attitude of the explorers, in one sweep making it clear that neither the poles nor the equator are fit for civilized societies as well as wondering what drives them to these places anyway. On the other hand, the sheer determination, unbreakable optimism and thrill of exploration found in these stories are contagious and can turn many of these tales of survival and human ingenuity into a great read. I encourage you to read Alfred Lansing's account of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition for example. The author captures both these elements of polar exploration very well in The Terror and goes on to add a few elements of his own.

History tells us that Franklin's expedition finally was lost to a combination of exposure, hunger, scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning and was even reduced to cannibalism at the end. Various rescue expeditions and later scientific study have given us a telling but incomplete picture of what happened in the years after 1845. Simmons has clearly done his homework, besides the detail on the ships and it's crew, he manages to seamlessly work most of the detail of the journey itself that has been uncovered in the past century and a half into his story. Those discoveries leave him more than enough room to add his own horrific element to the story.

He tells the tale seen from the point of view of a number of expedition members, from John Franklin himself to the lowliest sailor or marine, often using flashbacks to events earlier in the expedition to flesh out some part of the story. If there is a central figure, especially later on in the book, it is Captain Frances Crozier, an experienced naval officer held back by the navy because of his Irish background. After the death of Franklin in June 1847, before the events described in the bulk of the novel, the burden of command falls on him. Crozier considers himself melancholic, which I think he mistakes for alcoholic at least partly. His private thoughts are in stark contrast to the determination he projects when dealing with his men. The strain of command, the private doubts and his outward calm and competence make him an interesting character. I can't go into it much without spoiling the end of the book but he certainly doesn't end it as a melancholic drunk.

The other key character is the mysterious Lady Silence. An Inuit woman (the book uses the term Esquimaux) who has taken up residence on board the Terror after one of the expedition's scouting and hunting parties accidentally shoot her companion. The medical officers on the ship soon find out she is unable to speak because her tongue has been cut out. Her mysterious presence, the immense cultural and linguistic barrier and her ability to survive a lot more comfortably than the men on the ship make her the focal point for superstition and worship. Especially later on in the book, Inuit mythology adds another layer to an already rich work of fiction.

The historical part of the novel as well as the intense and chilling descriptions of the Arctic environment make this book a great read. I had some issues with the horror part of the book and the pacing however. At 960 pages this book is long. Longer than the story justifies I think. Part of that is due to unnecessary repetition. Crozier has the habit of mentally going over the roll for instance. We get several quite detailed summaries of who perished and when and who is still around, what their medical condition is and what their chances of survival might be. The expedition starts with over 120 men, these roll calls can get quite long. There are also a number of detailed descriptions of funeral ceremonies and of course the repeated attacks of the creature.

The scenes in which the creature appears are very well written. Especially early on in the book they add an element of fear on top of the other burdens of the men. After several attacks however, it doesn't quite as well any more. I guess the reader and the characters both put it in the back of their mind as an inconvenience that can't be helped. It doesn't push the plot forward or alter the decisions the men are facing. It isn't even all that clear what attracts it in the first place, although the final hundred pages or so of the novel shed some light on that. As such, the whole supernatural element in the story is not terribly effective.

On the whole the good far outweighs the bad. The author manages to make you shiver from the descriptions of the polar landscape and experience the life aboard a 19th century ship though a myriad of well researched details. He also delivers a surprising finale which, given the fact that the reader knows the fate of the expedition before reading a single page, is quite an achievement. The Terror may be long but despite my quibbles about the pacing, it reads quickly and at no point failed to hold my attention. Simmons has created a fascinating book based on this great tale of exploration. Definitely worth reading.

Book Details
Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 960
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-00807-5
First published: 2007

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