Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ex Libris: Dan Simmons' The Terror

It's amazing how we've managed to get this far, being such a brave and stupid species.

But as Dan Simmons shows in his historical novel, The Terror, it's always a combination of both that has gotten humankind this far. In this case, the ill-fated Franklin expedition shows how man can advance so far the banner of human discovery-- and still stumble a bit in the 'pride goeth before the fall' department.

Though Simmons throws in an imagined 'terror' in his fictionalized account of the last expedition of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus (the two ships of the Franklin Expedition) to the Canadian Arctic in search of the legendary Northwest passage, really it's the ice that serves as the true terror in the story.

I'm actually reminded of Clare Dudman's One Day the Ice will Reveal All its Dead, which was a kind of Alfred Wegener's love story with the ice. But though Dudman's and Simmon's vision of the blinding-white ice is similar, Simmon's version reveals the dangers that were all too real for explorers who risked the the snowbound fastness.

Simmons manages to convey the hopelessness and bravery of the legendary Franklin expedition. Though history tells us that the expedition was lost complete with its 128-man complement, Simmons still has enough leg room to tease out a white-knuckle thriller from the interstitials of what we do know of the expedition.

In this tale, Simmons details the raising of the expedition under the command of the rather ineffectual Sir James Clark Ross and made the tough Irish HMS Captain Francis Crozier his protagonist who is left with the uneviable job of trying to save the expedition after they are left snowbound in the harsh Arctic winter.

Aside from facing starvation, extremely freezing temperatures, and exposure from winter storms, the expedition also faced scurvy and botulism from badly-packaged foods, madness and eventual mutiny and cannibalism. And to make things more interesting, Simmons throws in a shadowy beast from Eskimo mythology that stalks and kills the members of the expedition with impunity in the darkness of the Arctic ice.

But a caveat though: Simmon's tale isn't a thriller in the true-sense of the word given its pacing conveys the crawling-desperation felt by the characters. A lot of things happen in the narrative, but most of the time it happens in the claustrophobic interiors of the ships, or on the blistering decks or ice fields surrounding the ships.

This is a thriller in the sense that it's a story about men trying to survive: whether it's nature, monsters-- and eventually, each other. (Rating: Three paws out of four.)

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