Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Terror (2007) by Dan Simmons

The Terror lay heavily on my mind for a very long time before I had the courage to pick up a copy for myself. At the best of times, I feel a sort of grim obligation to read and review any and all British Empire-themed books and films I come across, which of course means that I end up reading a lot of dross, and also that my shelves are fairly creaking with as-of-yet unread volumes. But The Terror… that was a step beyond. It takes a special kind of commitment to begin a thousand-page epic about frostbite, scurvy and the general grimness of 19th-century Arctic exploration, and know that you’re going to see it through to the bitter end. And, to be sure, the end was going to be very bitter. Like I say, The Terror lay heavily on my mind… perhaps as heavily as the upcoming 1845 Arctic expedition to force the Northwest Passage must have lain on the mind of its commander, Sir John Franklin.

But I sure am glad that I did pick it up.

Once in a great while you come across a book that thrusts you into a world and a subject that obsesses you: The Terror is such a book.

The Terror tells the story, in a fictionalized form, of the doomed Franklin Expedition. Once a Victorian cause celebre, it is now a largely forgotten event. I had certainly never heard of it before reading the book, but I was intrigued to find that my mother had memories of singing a song known as Lady Franklin’s Lament, a balled composed about this event just a few years after it happened.

So, what was all the fuss about? Well, as you may be aware, frost-bitten seamen had already been killing themselves north of Greenland for centuries searching for a safe way to sail over the top of the world: the fabled Northwest Passage. If found, such a route would allow ships to trade with the Far East without going around the infamous Capes. The thought of all that lovely trading and money had long convinced sailors that the Arctic ice must surely have been a relatively narrow band, with an easily-navigable (and completely mythical) ‘open Polar sea’ available to anyone who was brave enough to get to it.

Well, we’ve made some pretty sizeable dents into the Arctic with global warming since those days, but there still isn’t and never has been an open Polar sea. The net result is that pretty much all voyages with this goal became grim records of utterly futile horror and death. And into this litany of woe stepped Sir John Franklin in 1845, as he planned an ultra-modern expedition of over one hundred men and the latest in ice-worthy ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to force the Northwest Passage.

Sir John Franklin

Simmons’ weighty tome takes on this story from about a year into the expedition, when the two ships had already been trapped in ice for some time, and the proud Sir John was only just beginning to admit that he probably wasn’t going to realise his goal. Soon into the proceedings, it becomes pretty clear that even getting home alive would be quite an achievement for the team.

The day-to-day horrors of life at the frozen north are brought home with terrible clarity. Scurvy, starvation, rationing, and having metal objects such as pistols and telescopes tear off chunks of flesh whenever they touch bare skin are all common occurences for the crew of the Franklin Expedition. And yet, despite the unrelenting grimness, there is a kind of strange positivity to the whole thing. Somehow, Simmons makes you like and admire the characters. I won’t say there’s hope in the story, as pretty much every character seems to know that he’s doomed from the beginning, but there’s a certain dignity and respect for man’s determination to survive to the proceedings.The extraordinary level of detail of their ordeal, helped by the sheer length of time the reader spends with them, makes them  knowable and somehow admirable.

Simmons focuses largely on an officer called Crozier, an Irishman who has been passed up for promotion countless times because of his origin, despite being an extremely capable veteran of many polar expeditions. Crozier is a great hero, and a character who seems to have been extremely interesting in real life; Simmons depicts his redemption from hopeless achoholic to driven leader (upon the death of Franklin) with a panache that wrings real emotion from the reader. I seldom warm to a character as much as I grew to like Crozier: he’s a believable hero. He’s not perfect but he does the right thing, even under extraordinary circumstances.

Francis Crozier

 And it’s the extraordinary circumstances that I expect will make or break this doorstop of a novel for most people. For, in a genre-bending move, Simmons makes the most immediate threat to the crew not any of the above troubles, but instead a seemingly-supernatural creature, barely seen, that stalks them from the ice. It’s a weird twist indeed, changing the book from being a strictly historical thriller to a speculative pseudo-horror story. It’s a trick that works best towards the beginning, when we’re still unsure whether or not the creature is real or if it’s a product of madness and superstition. Inevitably, Simmons overplays his hand and is forced to ‘show’ us more and more of the monster. It still works as a decent thriller, but the mystery and horror elements do get somewhat watered down the more frequent the monster appearances are. I’m not going to indulge in a ‘don’t show the monster = better horror’ debate, but there are works that make me think that there's something to be said for the theory.

There are always pacing problems with a novel this size. I do personally value brevity and efficiency in fiction, and I feel that it takes a real master to justify the ludicrous page length of, say, the average Stephen King novel. And Simmons, while exellent, and a better writer than most, doesn’t quite sustain my interest at its initially high level. Which is a light criticism, but describes a problem which the author could easily have remedied, if he’d exercised a little more restraint. For the first 300-odd pages, I was completely hooked, entirely obsessed with the minutia of polar exploration. And what a feeling that was… I exhaustively researched the Franklin Expedition and its predecessors, sourced folksongs and stories dealing with Franklin and his crew, and generally bored everyone around me stupid with Arctic exploration stories for about two weeks (which is how long it took me to plough through this monster). The Rogers Stan song Northwest Passage in particular gave me chills the first time I heard it, and when he mentions Franklin in the chorus I felt as though he was singing about someone I had known and shared hardships with.

Compared to this, I found the monster stuff less interesting, though it was well done. Perhaps it's a sign that I'm getting older, that I prefer the historical stuff to the supernatural. Who knows.

There are very few books that obsess you, and for that reason I shall place The Terror proudly beside the few others on my shelf that have done the same. But the initial high did wear off about halfway through, and though I was never bored, there were times when I wondered how I would have felt about the book if it had finished while still rocking my world.

Stay frosty.

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