Thursday, January 31, 2008

Trapped in ice

There are few if any writers who cover as many genres as Dan Simmons. While best known for his science fiction, he has also written horror novels, crime novels, and spy thrillers. Not content with success in all of these fields, he turned to historical fiction with the Terror. While this is a monster in this book, the book is best described as historical fiction with horror elements, rather than a horror novel set in the past.

It is worth emphasizing that this is not a horror novel as Simmons created one of the greatest monsters of all time, the Shrike. The monster in this book, while terrifying, is not as engaging as the Shrike and is not ultimately all that important. While the book couldn't end as it did without him, this would be a fine book without him.

The Terror tells the story of the doomed 1846 polar expedition of Sir John Franklin. Due to poor decision-making by Franklin, the ships Erebus and Terror become trapped in the ice. While they are provisioned for years, they soon find there are issues with their food, their heat supply and their scurvy-fighting asorbics. That is about the time the monster starts picking off the men.

The drama of the story is how the crew reacts to being trapped in the far north with dwindling chances of survival. The crew's ingenuity in dealing with the variety of challenges in living in the far north makes for some of the most interesting reading. Initially those that would respond with valor and with determination predominate, but as they die off, the venal see their chances.

Many of the people attracted to this book will already be acquainted with the story of the expedition and the mysteries surrounding it. Others may not be as ready for such bleakness. As Fergus Fleming discusses in his brilliant Barrows Boys, the story of British exploration in the 19th century is one of the arrogant and unprepared going to their unpleasant demise.

Simmons provides a hero, and the principal narrator, in Captain Crozier who is able to effectively lead where the hapless Franklin cannot. It would have been bolder perhaps, to explore the character of Franklin, who Simmons portrays as a fool, facing his folly, but Franklin is known to have died early in the expedition. Crozier represents the heroism of those who persevere in the face of all but certain doom.

This is a great story on its own, but fans of historical fiction will appreciate Simmons attention to the detail of 19th century social life and the life on a ship and in the Arctic. Simmons pays close attention to the mindset of the early Victorians and this informs the various reactions to the situation. Those who dislike historical fiction, for example those who find the detail in the Aubrey and Maturin stories tedious, will find themselves skimming sections of the book.

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