Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: The Terror

© 2007 by Dan Simmons

First, the prelimaries. Dan Simmons is a writing god. First read him fifteen years ago, his masterpiece Hyperion, a science fiction epic mashing something like Alien with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I read it over the course of a month, mainly while commuting in and out of NYC via train. Recall fondly how I’d read it in Port Authority, leaning against a wall, while the crowds flowed about me negotiating the inevitable delays, which never bothered me so long as I had Simmons on me. The book was so good – too good, in fact – that it intimidated me from ever reading anything further from this master.

That is, until I read The Terror.

I must say it’s been quite a while since I’ve read such a page turner. The paperback clocks in at 955 pages, so I figured I’d be reading it well past Halloween. Turns out I burned through it in two weeks.

What intrigued me most about the novel, and I must admit I did not know it at first, is that it is a historical novel. That is, based on true events. It happened that in 1845, Sir John Franklin embarked from England with two of His Majesty’s ships to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Equipped with three years’ rations (five if under emergency measures), the 129 men aboard the Erebus and the Terror made contact with some whaling vessels, left provisions and a note on Beechey Island in the Arctic Circle, then became completely icebound a few weeks later.

The summer thaw never came. Nor the one the following summer. Franklin died, and command turned over to Francis Crozier. Facing starvation and mutiny, Crozier led his men south, hauling boats, tinned food and equipment over ice and snow, in search of open water. The fate of the expedition is uncertain, as there were no survivors. A few bodies were found, years later, leading to speculation of infighting and cannibalism, but nothing of certain could be determined as to what exactly claimed the lives of all 129.

In The Terror Dan Simmons weighs in with his theory. That’s where Alien comes in.

Seems that something is stalking the men … something out on the ice, out in the cold, dark fog of nights that last weeks. One by one sailors and marines are killed, slaughtered, in gruesome and macabre ways. My first thought was a monstrous polar bear, and that’s kind of where Simmons leads in the first hundred or two pages, but the truth is actually more brutal, more unstoppable, more alien than that. In fact, the antagonistic creature reminded me of the monster-entity Shrike from Hyperion more than the lethal biological killing machine of Alien. Either way, though, I had to find out how those cold, starving, desperate men would fare against their inexplicable nemesis.

They do it with that admirable stoic ability rarely seen nowadays outside of the military. And though the reader knows that no one will survive, what does happen is surprising – some do. Rather, one does. Or maybe two, depending on who you view as a member of the expedition. I kinda sorta foresaw the ultimate explanation of the Terror, and while the ending chapters seemed a bit loopy and hallucinogenic (a literary parallel to the ending of Kubrick’s 2001, as a very rough metaphor), the story’s resolution satisfied, if unsettled, me satisfactorily.

The best thing about the book is Simmons’ writing, of course. Every crewman comes alive – good, bad, and ugly. Lady Silence, a mute “Esquimaux” who plays some role as the Terror slaying begin shortly after she arrives at the ice-bound ships, Sir John Franklin in his pathetic misleading of the expedition and his terrible fate, the suffering of scurvy, frostbite, lead poisoning, the devolving into mutinous and loyal factions – all is brilliantly portrayed in such a realistic fashion I lost myself in the prose.

So The Terror was quite the pleasant surprise. I knew it would be good, but I thought it’d be an ordeal. Turns out three or four hundred-page-a-day reads, due to the inability to put the damn thing down, made it a great experience.

Grade: Solid, solid A, just a hair’s-breadth shy of A-plus.


1) Franklin’s “Lost Expedition” is the subject of tons of literature, explored from various angles and points of view. Never knew that. Might read some more about it.

2) Simmons followed this up with a novel called Drood, where – I assume – he gives similar treatment to the final five years of the life of Charles Dickens. Might read that, too, once I can get my hands on it

3) It also appears that AMC is in the process of developing a miniseries of The Terror, to premiere sometime in 2017. Should be interesting, and might give it a look-see (television tends to ruin everything).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Twelve Days Out

A few humble election night predictions:

* Hillary wins the general election with an electoral vote count in the upper 300s, more than doubling Trump’s gain.

** The popular vote will be much, much closer. Clinton by less than five points.

*** And no one will be happy Wednesday morning.

I know, I know: nothing really bold about these prognostications.

Four years ago, to make the Presidential Election a little interesting for me, I promised that if Romney won, I’d read the Book of Mormon. If Obama, then I’d re-read Atlas Shrugged.
Well, we all know what happened. And I managed to get near page 800 in Rand’s doorstop before I realized life was too short, &c.

So how will I make Decision 2016 interesting?

Well, it ain’t gonna involve reading. I’m halfway through Shelby Foote’s first tome on the Civil War, 300 pages into something that’s three volumes and close to 3,000 pages in size. That’ll take me up to Easter to complete at the rate of busyness I’m experiencing. I also just finished the 955-page The Terror (review to follow shortly), and have Dicken’s David Copperfield on deck (which clocks in itself at 800-plus pages) for November. So my reading life is kinda full.

Then I figured – how ’bout making the election choose an exercise for me? I am desperate to get back into shape, for a whole host of reasons (weight, energy, and sleep problems form a few broad categories). Say Trump wins, then I start an intense alpha-dog weightlifting program. Like I did two summers ago. My energy doubled, as well as my confidence. And if Hillary wins, keeping in mind her fragile brain health and all, perhaps I should focus on yoga, stretching, and gentle aerobic activity, like a daily dawn walk.

Since I think I know how the election’ll turn out, I might be in the market for some Rodney Yee DVDs this Christmas.

But that’s not getting me jazzed up.

Then I thought about the geopolitical situation. Something that’s always intrigued me, to greater or lesser extents, throughout my life. During the rocky transitions of the leadership of the Soviet Union, from Breznev to Chernenko to Andropov to Gorbachev, in the early 80s, I read a few books on Russia as a high school nerd. Studied the language a bit (the Cyrillic alphabet fascinated me to no end), its history and geography. Might I do something again, if Trump wins, seeing he’s an alleged Putin-o-phile? And if Clinton’s our Dear Leader for the next four years, how ’bout a quick study of China, our biggest adversary in the world that you’ll never hear about on the nightly news?

Eh … I dunno.

Maybe there’s just no way to make this Election interesting.

Maybe I’ll just keep reading about the Civil War, and the greatest man to ever hold elected office, Abraham Lincoln (despite some of his dictatorial overtures), the great struggle for the soul of the nation, a nation who willing tore itself asunder and warred against itself to cleanse its body of its horrible sin.

Yes, I think that’s what I’ll be doing regardless of the outcome Tuesday twelve days out.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Unclean! Unclean!

Oh man. I just went outside and painted a big letter Q on my front door, in heavy, dripping paint.

Q, for “Quarantined.”

Last Monday, after running around with the little ones after school to buy last-minute gifts for their mother’s birthday, right in the middle of dinner, Patch announces that her stomach feels funny.

She barfs.

I take Little One to the middle school, to band practice. While I’m gone, Patch barfs again. While I’m home, she barfs yet again. Then, when I go to pick up my oldest at band practice ninety minutes later, I learn that she christened the middle school band room bathroom with barf.

Oh dear.

I felt good all day, and all evening. Until 11:15.

Then I barfed.

I stayed home, unpaid, from work for the next two days to watch my daughters and take time to get myself healthy. All told, all tallied, we’ve barfed just under two dozen times.

Tuesday I slept a lot – something like ten hours during the day – that weird, off-putting feeling of half-waking, half-dreaming as the sunlight and shadows grow and diminish across the room. But I managed to sneak in viewing 1979’s Alien with Little One. Ah, a classic! She gave it an A-minus, and she jumped during all the requisite stomach-churning scenes. The next day we watched one of my favorite comedies, Planes Trains and Automobiles. They both laughed during all the requisite, stomach-chuckling scenes. Ah, good times!

Went back to work weak and shaky on Thursday, and finished strong on Friday. Then, yesterday, both little ones came down with regular, run of the mill colds. I’m up to my ankles in used tissues right now. Ah, gross times!

Good news is I’ve read something like five hundred pages in The Terror, Dan Simmon’s 956-page speculation on what happened to the ill-fated 1840s expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Just found out the book is in development to become an AMC series. Probably’ll be overdone, but has potential; I’ll have more to say when I review the book later this week (Note: its currently trending in the solid-A-with-a-couple-of-qualifiers).  

That’s really about all I did over the past six days. No further math explorations. Did not attend my tax class due to illness. A disconcerting sense of time is flying by faster and faster, and nothing is getting accomplished. Something needs to get done, but of what I know not.

Well, I guess I can start by scrubbing that giant red letter Q off my front door.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Favorite Political Pic

Or, … Let’s Pretend it’s 1980!

Yeah, I know the picture was taken when Reagan was duking it out with Ford in the Bicentennial Year. I have very vague recollections of the period, mostly from hazy TIME magazine covers observed in my grandparents’ house. But I came across this picture … oh, maybe ten years ago or so, in, of all places, an issue of a magazine about Inventors and Inventions. Since then it’s always resonated me – the buoyant hope, the aggressive optimism Reagan epitomized, personalized, and common-man philosophized, and would later gift our country with four years later. Quite a contrast to the vile choices we’re faced with in three weeks.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Slow Day at Work

This is my slow week at the new job. I put out a couple of small fires by 10 am. I’m juggling three projects at the moment, but can’t do anything with them until I hear back from three different people. So it was a long, slow day.

I am also pretty much fed up with politics, so I avoid the click-bait, us-vs-them political websites that crowd the Internet. Looking for something different, I went to a couple of new math websites. Yes, math. And the first thing I saw was a challenge:

Prove that any two consecutive triangular numbers add up to a square number.


I haven’t done a math proof in at least twenty-two years. Those algebraic corridors of my left brain are extremely rusted. Crumbling ferrous oxide rusted. But I (think I) figured it out, and it only took me thirty minutes and some basic algebra:

Now, most normal people out there will look at this as modern-day hieroglyphs. The few percent who actually know math will probably chuckle at how rookie the proof is. Me, I don’t know. I enjoyed it. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that it was the best part of a long, slow day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I am the Only One Who Found This Funny

Though, in all fairness, I only saw it this morning with a fully-dressed-and-prepped-for-school-at-six-forty-five-a.-m. Patch. The Amazing World of Gumball is one of her top-five favorite cartoons, but all she did was look quite askance at me as I doubled and tripled over in laughter.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Columbus Day

Couple of observations …

If you exclude the times I’ve been systemically and structurally unemployed (’01, ’09, ’10, and ’15), this is the first Columbus Day I have had off for legitimate reasons in 29 years. This is all thanks to my job at the non-profit, which we intentionally accepted because

a) it was a paying job

b) the schedule allowed me to take care of the girls’ extracurricular activities

c) I get eleven days off a year that they do through school

So I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do this morning. The wife has an office day, so I’ll steer clear of her. And the girls have a half-day, which means I’ll be supervising a play-date for Patch in the afternoon and picking up her older sister at the library after that.

But my morning is wide open. I suppose I should study for my Tax Prep mid-term, a two-hour computer-based test I have to take later at 6 o’clock. Since I’m running a 96 average in the class and I scored a 59 out of 61 on our mid-term review, a thirty-minute perfunctory once-over at 5 o’clock may be the result.

What’ll probably happen is I’ll sequester myself at a secret location and put away twenty or thirty pages of Foote’s tome-ish Civil War and an equivalent amount in the Dan Simmon’s horror historical novel I just started. You can also probably catch me down at the track. Me and Little One went there Saturday morning; she to run a half-mile and me to walk a mile. I’m getting rather, er, girthy, and after last night’s lasagna I might have to do a mile or two around the oval.

 *   *   *   *   *  

Leaving mass yesterday, we greeted our head priest as we always do. A very personable, holy, and charismatic man who’s only been with our parish for two years, and who’s formed an attachment to my family (Little One was the sole altar server at his first mass two years ago and thus the first parishioner he formally met).

He asked if the girls were excited about having tomorrow (Columbus Day) off. They said, no, that they had school, albeit a half-day. Then he looked at me and asked if they had Wednesday (Yom Kippur) off. I said that they did. An odd look crossed his face, and he shook his head. And he’s not even Italian.

Now I don’t believe it’s anything against our Jewish friends. We even said a prayer intention for them at mass. More so, I think, it might be due to the unfortunate beating Columbus Day seems to be taking in our increasingly antagonistic culture. But I could be projecting too much into and onto the observation I noted, which lasted all but a second or two.

 *   *   *   *   *

Four weeks and a day until the election. God help us all. I have thoughts about that for a later post, if I can stomach it.

 *   *   *   *   *

Not really Columbus Day related, but … I am hoping to finish the Dan Simmons book by November. It’s a massive paperback – 955 pages. Thus I need to read 43 pages a day to do so. Uh-huh. Hoping more that I enjoy the ride. Always strive to read something spooky, eerie, disturbing around Halloween, and this book has the nomination today (just edged out over a re-reading of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld).

Reason is, I am really, really, really jonesing for some Charles Dickens. I have Hard Times sitting in the On-Deck Circle since like forever (or last year, when I bought it). I had such a great time reading / listening to book on CD of Great Expectations two Thanksgivings ago that I now associate late November with Dickens. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll get Hard Times on CD, too …

 *   *   *   *   *

Speaking of jonesing, over the weekend I got all jazzed up about the Riemann Hypothesis again. Found a book on it, watched a couple of youtube videos (recommended by my teenage math genius nephew) about it, transcribed some formulas and such on scratch paper. Now the Riemann Hypothesis is Gary Kasparov and Boris Spassky and I’m a guy trying to remember the difference between a pawn and a bishop. Or, similarly, the Riemann Hypothesis is Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the entire New England Patriot’s organization, and I’m a dude who once held the down marker during a high school game his dad coached thirty-five years ago. You get the idea. But for me, the thrill is in the learning, not the mastering.

The thrill is in the learning, not the mastering.

(Unfortunately, that’s not where the $$$ is, but I don’t do any of this for $$$.)

 *   *   *   *   *

Well, that’s about a rap.

Happy Columbus Day everyone!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Cross Country with Werner and Erwin

Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger are racing south down a Nevada highway in a 1957 Chevrolet convertible, late for a meeting at Los Alamos. Heisenberg’s behind the wheel.

A cop pulls them over. Inspecting the German scientist’s provisional driving license, he asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Heisenberg replies: “No, but I know exactly vair I am.”

Arching an eyebrow and suspecting monkey business, the cops says, “You were going over a hundred miles an hour!”

“Ach!” Heisenberg cries out to his friend. “Now vee are lost!”

Convinced something’s amiss, the cop orders both scientists out of the car and gives it a thorough search. Upon opening the trunk, he steps back and eyes the pair suspiciously. “Do you know you have a dead cat in your trunk?”

“Vee do now!” Schrodinger wails.


It’s synchronicity! Spotted this old joke in the comments section of two different websites this past week, so I took it as a sign to post it here at the Hopper.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Lets Go Mets!

Playing the San Francisco Giants at home tonight in a one-game Wild Card match-up. I have to admit, I wrote ’em off way back in mid-August, but they came back, they battled back and won when they absolutely needed to, with the help of some key players returning / overcoming injuries, and fought to win home-field advantage. Got my pistachios and some ice tea (yeah, that’s how I party these days), put the girls on notice not to bug me with last-minute ephemera, and will doff the jersey.

Should they win tonight, they’ll go on to play the Cubs in a best-of-five series. The Cubs, boyhood team of my 84-year-old father-in-law who lives down in Hilton Head. That’s tough. The Mets eliminated the Cubbies last year in a championship sweep, and my FIL has been waiting his entire life for a World Series appearance. However, the Cubs are probably the best team in MLB. At least, averaged over the season. Not sure how they played at the end of September; momentum is huge in this sport. Just ask the Mets.

But I’m just a gentleman-farmer fan of the sport. Which means I enjoy it, win or lose. Should be a fun coupla hours, so long as it doesn’t turn into a romp over the home team.