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).

No comments: