Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

10 October, 2011

The Terror





Dan Simmons' The Terror is a fictional account of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage which had no survivors. With all of the action taking place north of the Arctic Circle, this book is the coldest one I've ever read. I'd get chills just looking at the cover. And, when scurvy really starts taking a toll, I began to subconsciously choose orange juice as my preferred beverage.

As best as researchers can piece things together, the expedition's two ships, the HMSes Terror and Erebus, got stuck in the ice somewhere off the northwest coast of King William Island in September 1846. The pack ice never thawed enough to allow the ships to sail and the crews spent nearly a year and a half trying to survive aboard the immobile vessels and on the nearby island. A note found several years later indicates that they had planned to attempt to make their way to the Canadian mainland in April of 1848 and hopefully sail the Back River to Great Slave Lake and civilization.

The novel begins in October 1847 with the ships held fast by the ice. Captain Francis Crozier walks the decks of the Terror checking on the guards who struggle to generate even a modicum of warmth while out on the deck. Simmons wastes no time in giving a chill to the reader by noting in the second paragraph that it's -50F with the temperature dropping. When I was reading the very first few paragraphs, I immediately thought about the Endurance stuck in the ice some 60 years later. (See this photo, for an example.) I sat there imagining the sheer, well, terror of being several hundred miles away from anything approaching civilization when you know the overnight low is probably going to be in the triple digits below zero and you've got to stand out in that for an hour or two on guard duty. And the reason they're on guard duty is because there's a "thing" lurking out there which may or may not be a particularly vicious polar bear. It reminded me of Smoky from LOST. It's lurking and seemingly attacks indiscriminately while remaining enigmatic until the end.

Having gone into the novel not knowing anything about the real expedition, I appreciated how Simmons just drops the reader off in media res. The ships are stuck in ice, Sir John Franklin is dead and you don't know what happened, there's an Inuit woman called Lady Silence by the crew who cannot talk because she has no tongue, and there's that thing outside. Plus there's a noisy pack of rats chowing down in the Dead Room where corpses are stored. Basically Simmons puts the reader underneath a Stygian gloom from the first few words.

Crozier is the main character here. He begins as second in-command but becomes the head honcho upon Franklin's death with Captain James Fitzjames of the Erebus assuming the role of his second in-command. Franklin is portrayed as fairly incompetent in addition to being a snobby Brit – the kind who takes fine china on a voyage to the Arctic. He is also a prude to boot as he allowed no profanity and was a teetotaler. While Fitzjames essentially fades away over the course of the book, Crozier steps up and delivers. He is Irish and thusly has always been something of an outcast in the RN. He has a genuine concern for his men and is willing do to whatever need be done. He is more pragmatic than is predecessor. No fine china and, instead of reading from the Bible during sermons, he reads from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.

While there are flashbacks to the lives of some of the characters prior to the expedition, the book mostly keeps you out on the ice. The thing out there is an ever-present threat and there are some vicious attacks but it's generally in the background, a terror looming over the proceedings. At 760+ pages, that means that a large part of the story is devoted to the quotidian rituals of the ships' crews. They try to stay warm but there's only so much coal. How much to devote to heating the ships and how much to save for the steam engines once the ice has broken? Food isn't an immediate problem at first but more and more cans are found to be putrid. It seems the Royal Navy took the lowest bid from a shady victualler who did a less than stellar job. It doesn't help that the sailors are less than adequate hunters which means precious little fresh meat. That and there are curiously few animals around. Plus there's sickness. Scurvy and consumption. And everyone has frostbite. Over the course of the book characters decay from illness and lack of nourishment. Clothes become too small, eyes and cheeks become sunken. Periods outside mean that frostbitten toes are amputated on a regular basis. And, perhaps worst of all, the rum is being depleted.

There isn't a lot of character development here. Crozier is the most fully-realized of the bunch with perhaps Dr. Goodsir coming in second. We learn a fair amount about him through entries in his diary. He becomes Crozier's confidant and a fairly substantial player. But the emphasis is firmly placed on life out in the cold, barren, and mostly lifeless Arctic. That's because this is a story of survival and decay as parable than it is of personal development. These guys are out in the middle of nowhere trying to hang on while all around things them falls apart. Despite having state of the art steam engines and utilizing the then new technology of canned comestibles, food decays, morale decays, order decays, and people decay. The Terror is a slow-burning tale of agony on every front. But the whole thing is a metaphor for America or for Western civilization more generally.

About halfway through the book, the officers have a meeting in which they decide to abandon the ships. When it is done, an old, wise codger named John Bridgens asks to have a word with Crozier. Bridgens implores Crozier to peruse a couple large volumes from the ship's library which detail an expedition made by Sir John Ross and his nephew James to the same general area where the Terror and Erebus are locked in ice. The Rosses utilized survival techniques they gleaned from the native Inuits and Bridgens urges Crozier to adopt them. He refuses and puts the books back on the shelf not even having cracked the spines.

This act, along with the revelation that Crozier has the gift of second sight, takes on its significance about 300 pages later.

***Spoilers ahead! Turn back now!***

Crozier is the only member of the expedition left alive but he is rescued by Lady Silence. Simmons gives us a chapter on Inuit folklore which explains the nature of the creature that preyed on the expedition and relates it to the encroachment of white people into Inuit lands. The main idea here is that, as more white people come, a balance is upset which throws the Inuit into turmoil. They will forget their culture, become drunks, and despair.

Lady Silence heals Crozier and they become intimate. Under her aegis, he becomes part of her culture in addition to a part of her life. There an echo here of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Crozier becoming something vaguely like the Star Child in that story. His transformation involves not only adopting another culture but also becoming part of a cosmic balancing act involving the Inuit and the creature.

***End of spoilers.***

It's important to note here that this ending is not some jejune epilogue tagged on for a happy ending. On the contrary, it is lengthy and involved. It makes for a fitting coda in that it is remarkably peaceful and lets the reader come down from 700 pages of terror and agony. But it also parallels that which preceded it in that it involves survival on the ice. Finally, it explains things. It explains the fate of the Franklin Expedition – why the ships were trapped in ice which never melted, why the creature attacked the crew, and what the nature of the creature was.

Don't let The Terror's imposing length deter you. While brutal with its narrative of men in a totale krieg with the worst Mother Nature can throw at them as well as inanition, it is also an enthralling Gothic horror story that keeps you guessing and savagely appeals to your sense of morbid fascination.
|| Palmer, 8:13 PM

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