Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Terror

Photo: Cover of the novel's first edition, from its Wikipedia page

I've beat the Dan Simmons drum before, with the recently-read Drood.  That book had been very good; for a look at my review on this blog, go here.  But now, let's talk about The Terror.

This book is much longer, and much more brilliant.  At 955 very thin, paperback pages, the most brilliant thing about The Terror is that, with the resolution not in doubt--the back, and associated blurbs, tell you that the whole of Sir John Franklin's expedition died while looking for the non-existent Northwest Passage.  If you don't read the backs of books, you probably Google interesting things, and no one will read 955 pages in one sitting.  So you Google it, or go to Wikipedia, and you find out that all of the men aboard died of scurvy, starvation, frostbite, gangrene, and poisoning from the ill-prepared cans of food, and that most of the bodies were never found.  You know that Franklin's spirited wife, Lady Jane Franklin, who had more money than he did, sent expeditions herself looking for his, all of which mostly failed.  You know that there were some graves found later, and some information in cairns, and the Erebus burned and sank at a given spot, and the Terror burned and sank at a spot about 90 miles from where it should've been, and that one man was found frozen on a small boat in the ice--and that's all you know.  But the fact that all the men perish is known from the outset.

So, the brilliance of The Terror is that all 955 pages are still compulsively read.  It's a rare thing that you're reading a page-turner even though you know how it all ends.  But such is the case.  Part of its greatness is that it works a metaphor that combines the fact that life itself is a non-winning struggle ("No one here gets out alive," Jim Morrison once intoned), and that the lives of the men is a non-winning struggle, and that the reading of the book itself is in many ways that same struggle.  We all know how all three of them end, and it's not for the best, and yet you read on like you fight on, because reading can be addictive like life itself, and what else are you gonna do?

Like all good historical fiction, it makes you want to read about the real thing.  When I do, I'll bet that I'll find that Dan Simmons exhaustively researched the real thing--his acknowledgements and souce listings are extensive, though in paragraph format and not in bibliography--and then creatively connected the dots as he went through the real thing.  A fictional connect-the-dots of the documented evidence, and of the most learned research and the most educated guesses.

The title itself refers to many things: the main ship itself, of course; the struggle of this existence (referenced many times); death, or Death, and the afterlife, if any; and, most menacingly, a real/mythical super-powerful creature that's basically Predator-on-ice--a gigantic creature with impossible strength that blends in with its surroundings so well you don't see it until it's upon you (or until you see its black, little beady eyes, like a camouflaged octopus).  Simmons is smart enough to know that you can't have a novel surviving on just this creature alone, especially when you're reconstructing actual events (and there's no mention of this creature, of course, in the actual events).

The writing is therefore smart as well.  It jumps between a dozen or so POVs, sometimes the same one in consecutive chapters.  It creates mysterious characters and things--Lady Silence (who the readers, especially the males, will find mysteriously awesome); Crozier's dreams; foreshadowings and almost-prophecies; and the creature, and a mythical/mystical/existential story and belief system that surrounds it--and allows one to live with it.  (I'm not sure I buy this last part--the last 20 pages or so of the novel--but it is effective and interesting.)  Simmons creates tension with simple bad guys, the elements, the creature, starvation, the accidental poisoning of the cans (and the Royal Navy's cheapness that allows for the instant rotting of much of the canned food), the social atmosphere of the time, the life of seamen in Her Majesty's Service, the whiteout conditions and screwy weather of the area.  And, of course, the ice.  Oh, my, the ice.  The wind.  The cold.  You'll believe you're there, in the ice, wind and cold--and if you live in Canada or New England this winter (or, from what I understand, in Oklahoma and much of the Plains for a week or so this winter), you almost were there.  But these men dealt with -100 degree (yes) weather almost every day.  Often it was -30.  Towards the end, it approached 0 and it felt like a heat wave.

Did you know that your own clothing could freeze to you if you sweat from exertion, and then it got very cold?  Or even if you sweat from exertion or fever while it was very cold?  Did you know that you can freeze to death and yet get sunburned at the same time?  Amazing.

Read this book.  It is impressive.  If you're a mystery writer, it is so good that you'll want to emulate it.

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