Thursday, March 01, 2007

BOOK: "The Terror," by Dan Simmons

The Terror isn't historical fiction -- unless you believe in giant demons summoned by Esquimaux shamans -- but with such believably accurate, painstaking depictions and details, Dan Simmons's latest novel might as well be. He takes liberties with the story of the 1845 Franklin Expedition, a voyage that destroyed the HMS Terror and Erebus, but his studious fiction is certainly entertaining.

Written with a cinematic flair, this epic, almost 800 page yarn leaps from character to character with an instantly intimate tone. Although the narrative is third-person (with the exception of some Authentically Capitalized diary entries by the ship surgeon, Dr. Goodsir), the oppressive circumstances endear us to all but the vilest of characters, especially as we realize that Simmons is introducing such a large cast (out of 126 shipmates, at least twenty get their time in the spotlight) so that their inevitable deaths are both more dramatic and more affecting.

And what deaths! For a book that is as much about snuff as it is survival, this is the true Final Destination. If it's not bad enough to be iced in the wintry grip of the endless night and unflinching sea, the crew is mutinous, there's poison if you eat (and scurvy if you don't), the temperature hits negative 100, the sun disappears for months at a time, and there's a giant polar monster (ten times the size of the already fierce white bear) stalking them. Simmons gives us a few flashbacks early in the novel (and a few delirious dream sequences later on), but he keeps the focus on the struggle, and the struggle alone. In a brilliant, time-saving technique, he manages to gloss even important scenes by switching to narrators who are better situated to encapsulate what has just happened. As a result, there is very little repetition, and the scenes Simmons chooses to show us seem more vital and important for their telling.

Of course, not all of these work as well as others: characters like Harry Peglar and John Bridgens are superfluous explicators, included only because of their intellectual ability to link their inhuman adversary with Darwin's early theories. Simmons romantically links the two, but their love is so unconsummated that it is as distant and unnecessary as their story. More often than not, however, the different character perspectives give us a broader view of how the ship works: Blanky, the ice master, gets to demonstrate his deep knowledge of the ship when he is forced to flee the monster in an adrenaline-pumping chapter. Irving's peeping on Silence, a mute Esquimaux girl they "found" on the ice, offers us a lovestruck window into Esquimaux culture; even Captain Franklin, a religious teetotaler, provides a bumbling steadfastness to balance the courageous crassness of the central character, Captain Crozier. (If one wants to make the correlation between Franklin and George W. Bush, "deciders" both, I leave it to you.)

Bold as the book is in its plotting, Simmons doesn't go for much stylistically. His writing is well-honed from his science-fiction background: descriptions crackle with visual flair and dialog does more to accentuate a character than anything else ("You hairy arse-licking rat-fucking piss-drinking spawn of a poxy Highgate whore!"). But the monotone of the third-person narrative does occasionally drift, and the plights of certain characters sometimes bleed into each other's stories. Things are never described the same way, but the same things are often brought up, and the best chapters are the ones devoted to unique events, like the ill-fated Carnivale thrown on New Year's Eve, or the futility of frozen funeral:

"Again we walked back across the creaking, squeaking, moaning ice alone, under the stars dancing in the Cold this time...," "I was always aware of that cold, black, vertical, lifeless and lightless slab of insensate Stone behind me...," and "I can imagine the fusillade of snow pellets already working to eradicate the letters on the wooden headstones."
Simmons also has an uncanny way of making unusual terms easily accessible for the layman. Beyond the descriptions of the ship's inner workings and outer riggings, past the delegation of responsibilities (and privileges) aboard an English ship, and further than the tale of a desperate march across miles of uneven ice, the Esquimaux characters and accessories spring to life as if they were common utilities:
"This vehicle has runners made up of small and carefully shaped pieces of scavenged wood interlinked with walrus ivory. It uses shoes of whalebone and flattened ivory rather than just a layer of peat paste on its runners, although [they] still reapply a layer of ice to the runners several times a day. The cross sections are made up of antlers and the last bits of wood they had, including the sleeping-shelf slat; the rising rear posts are composed of heavily lashed antlers and walrus ivory."
Despite the repetition of "walrus ivory," that's still a nicely poetic description, one that slides right into the text, from the alliterative "sleeping-shelf slat" to the "rising rear posts." Both technical and illustrative, it's an example of how well Simmons ties everything together.

The Terror is a bleak, almost masochistic tale of brave, stupid men. The constant close encounters keep readers on the edge of their seats, and the story is rendered even more gripping by the knowledge that every day, death creeps a little closer: man struggles with beast, nature, and himself, all at once. Finally, the author's own savagery toward his own characters lends his novel the excitement of a show like Lost: no character is safe, and no question is ever neatly answered . . . we need to see more.

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