Dan Simmons' The Terror may be one of the few novels I've read that makes me grateful to live in Texas. This imaginative re-telling of the doomed Fran...moreDan Simmons' The Terror may be one of the few novels I've read that makes me grateful to live in Texas. This imaginative re-telling of the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage is overwhelming in its details of life and death in the Arctic north. The cold is constant, the dark is depressing, and the wind, snow, ice, fog, and (when it appears) water are life-threatening. These are things Texans don't have to worry about. I must remember this book when I want to complain about 110 degree temperature in August. I must remember temperatures of 70 below zero with wind and wet and blindness on top of that.
The two ships of the expedition, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, sail from England in 1845 and explore the area around Beechey Island and Cornwallis Island before attempting to sail south between Prince of Wales Island and Boothia Peninsula to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Circle to the Pacific Ocean. However, they press on southward along this path in the face of glaciers, oncoming winter, and dwindling supplies, only to become stuck, frozen in the ice for two years along the west coast of King William Island. They press on at the insistence of the expedition leader, Sir John Franklin, and against the advice of other seasoned explorers and naval officers, including Francis Crozier, the book's central character. Eventually, the men have to abandon ship and take off on foot across King William Island to try to find a passage south and, hopefully, rescue.
The men die slowly from disease, starvation, and exposure as time wears on, and sometimes they also die suddenly as the land or its inhabitants betray them and their expectations. The Terror is a long novel at 766 pages, and it is long for this very reason. The slow death of over a hundred men cannot be represented quickly. It is also a surprisingly suspenseful novel, given the facts of the case. We know, with the assistance of some quick internet research, that there were no survivors, there was no rescue. To this day, no one really knows exactly what happened to this expedition. Yet we read on, willing the men to survive, to find a way out of this awful mess.
There are fanciful (less than strictly factual) elements to the story, too, including a large creature that stalks the ships and kills men easily, a creature that is not merely physical, but spirit. And the final chapters of the book turn from realist representations of attempts at survival in the fatal north to mythic representations of Inuit culture and finally to a synthesis between the two.
I haven't fully decided yet how to feel about these inclusions. Do they weaken the very vivid realism of the novel and diminish the terror of the terrain itself as well as the terror of the evil that grows in some men in such situations? Or do they reinforce these elements, standing in as metaphors for the dangers of the north and the dangers of some humans?
One thing these inclusions certainly do is reveal the stark contrast between the European expedition's goals and methods (and the madness of these goals and methods) with the knowledge and skill the native people have in this land. The Englishmen carried with them, from England and then from their ships, cutlery, books, jewelry, trinkets. They did not know how to survive and yet they thought they would conquer this frozen world. Franklin's very insistence on pushing forward, his insistence that any day now the pack ice would melt away from the ships and reveal the Northwest Passage is, in this context, nothing short of insanity. The things that are described in the Inuit culture (communion with spirits, communion between humans that requires no speech, etc.) may seem like insanity to outsiders, but no more so than the European methods of exploration and survival seem like insanity when seen from the perspective of those who survive the severity of the Arctic circle.
The Terror is about the terror of the Other, the terror borne of a lack of understanding. The Terror is also about how we deal with that terror. Do we flail against it, try to beat it into submission, as did the Englishmen? Or do we learn to live with it, learn to appease it and live alongside it, as did the Inuit?(less)