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The Terror

Terror SnipHas a ship ever been more appropriately named than the HMS Terror? A mortar-launching bomb vessel converted to icebreaker, she sailed to Antarctica (a massive frozen volcano, Mount Terror, is named for her) before setting off with her sister ship, the HMS Erebus, on the 1845 Franklin expedition to chart the Northwest Passage. Terror and Erebus became frozen into the ice west of Baffin Island, where the crews slowly starved and froze to death over the course of two horrifically cold winters and thawless summers before making a desperate and doomed trek south. Only years later were a few traces of the expedition found, the bodies showing signs of lead poisoning, murder and cannibalism.

My most recent bout of insomnia has allowed me to finally finish off Dan Simmons’ 784-page novel, The Terror, based on the Franklin expedition. Simmons’ Sir John Franklin is fueled by a combination of Victorian hubris and a desperate need to redeem himself following a previous arctic failure, which leads him to take the expedition into dangerously risky territory (the echoes of Iraq are never overdone, but they’re hard to miss). As a series of catastrophes — natural, manmade and supernatural — unfold, the story shifts to Crozier, captain of the Terror and the huddled band of survivors, at which point, the novel kicks in and never lets up. The survivors must deal with scurvy, mutiny, and winters of constant darkness and unrelenting cold. And that’s not even counting the thing out on the ice that’s killing the men one by one.

The novel paints arctic exploration as inept intrusions on a relentlessly hostile and unforgiving world, exacerbated by the arrogance of explorers who mistake their accidental survival for triumph over nature. Only Crozier and his crew’s determination to survive for the sake of survival keeps them going. As things get more and more dire, it becomes clear that this instinct is not necessarily heroic.

I’ve never read any of Dan Simmons’ other work, but I might have to now. The Terror is a grim story, but it never feels nihilistic — Simmons is surprisingly warm and humanistic even while he’s killing his characters, and the details of 19th-century polar exploration are fascinating without ever interfering with the story. It may be 800 pages long, but it’s a damn entertaining 800 pages.

5 Comments

  1. David wrote:

    Dan Simmons writing historical novelizations!? Wacky. I knew him from his scifi days – I can generally recommend Hyperion books 1 & 2 (but skip 3 & 4)… some of the only reasonable scifi I’ve found since I abandoned the genre after high school. And it’s got some good Catholics-take-over-the-universe subplots for those that like such things. It’s definitely on the space opera end of the spectrum, but still surprisingly entertaining.

    I’ll have to check out some of his newer stuff.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2007 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  2. andy wrote:

    yep, i second david’s recommendation of hyperion 1 & 2. it was eddy who recommended these books to me a few years back, and they make for great “traveling through italy in the summer” literature. good times. but make sure to grab both: eddy forgot to mention that the narrative is back-to-back, and it took me a week to get my hands on hyperion 2 after i had finished book 1. not good, i tell you. you’ll want to know how it goes on. fast.

    will check out “the terror”. thanks for the pointer. cheers.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  3. Eric wrote:

    Thanks for the recommendation, guys. I\’ll have to give them a read.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Ian wrote:

    “(the echoes of Iraq are never overdone, but they’re hard to miss).”

    What on Earth are you talking about???

    The story has nothing at all to do with Iraq or modern-day politics.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 10:21 pm | Permalink
  5. I’m not sure I’d agree with that, Ian. The Franklin of this book is an arrogant and isolated leader who claims divine inspiration and is in charge during a spectacular disaster which galvanizes him, but he is also criticized for his handling of. He responds by leading a grand, pointless, completely unprepared mission that rapidly becomes a horrific and inescapable mess, with his men picked off singly and in small groups by an unexpected, invisible enemy. I’m not saying the book is an allegory for Iraq, but the concerns of the story are probably different than they would have been in a book written in 1997 (or 2017).

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 11:32 am | Permalink