Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Terror: A Novel, Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons in one of my favorite authors of science fiction, and if this book happens to be historical fiction mixed with fantasy, that doesn’t lessen my admiration of his work one bit. I’ve always enjoyed his pure story telling, realistic and empathetic characters, and the deep store of erudition that informs his work. Upon finishing his books I am filled with appreciation and admiration of the story just finished. However, when I look back to analyze the story, I find myself surprised by the questions never answered and the plot points that don’t make sense. These things have never detracted from my enjoyment of a Simmons’ novel while I’m reading it, but they’ve never failed to puzzle me when I’m done with one. Simmons’ latest novel, The Terror, fits this pattern.

For most of its length, The Terror is a historical novel or perhaps a secret history. In 1845 Sir John Franklin sailed with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to try to find the Northwest Passage. They left two notes on King Williams Island, one in 1847 and one in 1848, but were otherwise never heard from again. There has been much speculation about their fate: they stated that they had to abandon the ships in 1848 when theoretically they should have been provisioned for a longer stay, if needed. There weren’t many artifacts from the mission found, but they’ve all been carefully analyzed. Simmons’ includes the results of all of this research in the story: Franklin’s incompetence, the probability that the low-cost bidder provisioning company provided sub-standard rations in cans poorly soldered with lead that came into contact with the food, the fact that the years 1846-1848 were unusually cold ones, etc. However, he adds to all this a gigantic supernatural polar bear-ish monster preying on the crew as they are stuck in the ice during the long, dark winters. Given that the expedition had so many other well-documented problems, this sometimes seems like unnecessary torture of the crew.

There is one other crucial, fictionally added, figure in the book: Silence. Discovered when an over-land party accidentally shot her male companion (father? Shaman? Brother?), Silence is an Esquimaux woman whose tongue appears to have been bitten out of her mouth. While she is obviously perfectly capable of looking after herself in the Artic wilderness, she stays with the crew for long periods of time, moving around enigmatically, and possibly having some connection with the monster.

As in movies about the Titanic, we know how this ends. Everyone dies, or at least they are never heard from again by white people. So when you’re reading about these characters, and watching some of them experience real growth, there is always the shadow of death and futility hanging over the narrative. Likewise, when characters manage by pluck and luck to escape death for a time, we know that death will win in the end. Even without the monster, there are monsters within the crew, people undermining the leaders’ authority, trying to subvert and grab power. This was a little disturbing to me: these were real people. Every character in the book is one of the crewmen who were registered as sailing with the ships when they left England. Who is to say how they handled their impending doom? Why choose this man to be a bad person who shirked his duty and to claim that this man was a man who did his best and rose to the occasion? It seemed arbitrary and possibly insulting to the men portrayed as shirkers or mutineers, and I wonder if Simmons was in touch with any of the families while he was writing. Perhaps after 150 years it doesn’t matter, but knowing enough people who know exactly which family members of theirs served in what units of the Civil War, and all the individual stories of heroism or cowardice handed down through family lore for generations, I wouldn’t count on time fading interest.

This book serves as a catalog of ways to die and ways to meet death. Men are eaten, beheaded, chopped in half, poisoned, shot, starved, amputated, and stricken by scurvy. Frankly some of the most horrific passages of the book are in no way supernatural, but simply uncensored accounts of exactly what happens when someone dies of scurvy. Men face their deaths heroically, cravenly, calmly, panicking, insane, confused, and phlegmatic. It is an impressive piece of writing simply for the vast range of human experience encountered and documented in one particular historical episode. All of the writing is intense, often beautiful, never neglecting the human and the humorous amongst all the horror and despair. Simmons is one of the most amazing chroniclers of the human soul in scenarios outside of normal human experience in the field of fantastic fiction.

In the end though, there are the unanswered questions (again, never detracting from enjoyment of the book while the book is being read). Why does Silence hang around with the crew at all? An explanation is implied, but it is unsatisfying. Given that she hangs around with the crew, why does she make no effort to share her survival skills with them? Once the total surviving membership is down to one worthy individual, she takes him in and essentially makes him an Esquimaux. Why wait until the other 140+ men are dead? The monster itself is given an impressively mythic background that makes its role and its symbolism quite clear, but Silence remains a disturbing enigma. It seems that her actions are meant to emphasize the overall theme of the book: the British, or more generally the white man, were such colonial idiots that they raped the landscape and killed themselves with their own superior refusal to learn from the natives. The implication is that we are no better today, continuing to rape the environment and refusing to learn ways to live harmoniously with the Earth, unleashing monsters upon the land in the form of accelerating climate change. This is a moral that is very hard to dispute in this day and age, but it seems oddly banal from a book with so much emotional depth. Perhaps I simply feel like the choir being preached to: I’m basically already an environmentalist and politically correct anti-colonialist, so I felt that I didn’t learn anything new from this message. Perhaps if I were not already convinced of the rightness of Simmons’ theme I would feel differently. However, none of this detracts from the amazing story that Simmons has written. Take away logical analysis of themes and morals, focus solely on the characters and the Story, and be amazed at his ability to weave a tale that will enthrall you.