Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Whole Raft of Them.



Dan Simmons' The Terror is an icy thrill ride, a deft mixture of historical fiction, supernatural thriller, and meticulous historical detail. Like Drood, Terror is sprawling, packed with nuanced detail, not overly concerned with tight pacing, and not for those who enjoy quick and easy reads.

Simmons picks up where history leaves off: we know Sir John Franklin's ships, the Erebus and the Terror set sail for the Arctic Circle during the heady days of English exploration in 1845. We know nothing about their fate (well, maybe not nothing-I think it's safe to say they're all in Nature's deep freeze, and if the globe heats up any more, maybe someday someone can walk up there and find them, and I imagine they'll look like bananas with freezer burn). But regardless, Sir Franklin's crew all vanished, and despite the efforts of his monied wife to mount a search and rescue, no one was ever found.

Terror catches up with the crew of the ship as they wait in their ice-locked ships. The winter has been hard, even by Arctic standards, and the ships are hopelessly stuck in the ice-choked ocean. The crew is fretful, the food sucks, people keep losing extremities, shipmates are dying from tuberculosis (scurvy has yet to hit them, but you know it's a-comin'), and not only are they trapped in a freezing, stinking hulk of a ship being slowly pulverized by the ice, there's a something out there, a nameless terror on the ice.

Imagine a polar bear on steroids that seems able to materialize and dematerialize at will, that enjoys chomping, slashing, and otherwise shredding the members of Franklin's crew, sometimes returning their mangled bits to the ship for a bit of a giggle. Needless to say, Franklin's crew is less than happy about hanging around and waiting to be done in by frostbite or the nameless Downy Bear from Hell.

It's a relief when Sir James (a bumbling, well-meaning but incompetent captain) obligingly dies and leaves Capt. Frances Crozier in charge, a much more capable Irishman who, in the grand tradition of sailors and Irishmen, is a better sailor drunk than Franklin was a captain sober.

Simmons' novel becomes a game of what-can-we-throw-at-the-sailors. As if murderous ghost bears and, you know, BEING STUCK IN THE ARCTIC AND ALL WHY DID THEY THINK IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO GO UP THERE ANYWAY weren't enough misery, the crew discover their canned-by-the-lowest-bidder food supplies are tainted with botulism and lead; scurvy sets in; their machinery breaks or malfunctions; and some of the crew members (one in particular is nasty enough to make you want to reach through the pages and smack him) start plotting a mutiny.

With his surviving crew and a mysterious, tongueless Inuit girl (in fine English fashion, the crew shot the man she was traveling with, because, you know, that just makes TOTAL sense to the sailors), Capt. Crozier makes a desperate dash across the ice with his damaged, freezing, starving men, pursued by what seems like the embodification of all the rage of the tundra.

Simmons' writing had me skipping pages ahead and then rereading because I couldn't bear not to know what fresh horror the crew was going to have to face. When the chance of salvation on the ice seems to present itself in the form of a group of Inuit who chance upon one of Crozier's men, THEY SHOOT THEM. YEAH. THAT'S SMART EVERYBODY BRILLIANT WORK CHAPS YOU ALL GONNA DIE.

Unlike Drood's non-ending, Simmons lets us in on what the terror on the ice is, but what the Terror is is more nebulous-the ship itself, the men aboard it, the despair and evil that the sailors visit upon each other and their relentless stupidity, which, if you're like me, will make you shriek and hurl the book across the room. But it's worth it, for Simmons' beautifully detailed writing and complicated characters, and the opportunity to watch Nature deliver a bloody, freezing bitchslap to the sailors who thought they could conquer the Arctic.

Now I'm going to go gargle some lemon juice. Just in case.

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