Stranded in the Arctic

2008-10-02 08:05

Terror abounds in this nerve-stretching, bone-chilling, totally absorbing historical novel: one of the two exploration ships involved in the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic in the mid-19th century was named Terror; all the characters are ridden by terror of awful slow death by starvation, disease or unspeakable cold; and another terror is what appears (dimly-seen) to be a giant polar bear that stalks the crews of the ice-bound Terror and her sister-ship Erebus, erupting out of the dark and ripping apart one character after another. This “thing on the ice” exhibits a murderous and diabolical cunning that suggests it is no “ordinary” animal (echoes of Moby Dick resonate throughout.) Arctic conditions appear programmed for the obliteration of mere human beings.

Dan Simmons has been mainly a science-fiction writer, although books like his Ilium and Olympus provide an intriguing mix of science fiction and Greek mythology. In The Terror he turns his focus on historical events of the 1840s, and The Terror is both an unputdownable narrative of courage, folly and enormous suffering and an immensely informative and fascinating account of the semi-suicidal but always heroic attempts by men to explore the polar seas (partly in search of the fabled Northwest Passage).

The Terror is jam-packed with details about conditions aboard early ice-breaking steamships, the nature and behaviour of ice (both ships are being slowly crushed), polar bears and above all the unearthly, magnificent, appallingly dangerous landscape of the far north. (The book opens with a breathtaking description of the Aurora Borealis - exquisitely beautiful, weirdly ominous.)

The central and ultimately disastrous problem for this expedition was that both ships became utterly trapped in the ice for nearly two years. Thus to the murderous cold (sinking to -70 degrees Fahrenheit) and darkness were added boredom, frustration, escalating starvation and malnutrition (with scurvy slowly and horribly destroying increasing numbers of crewmen), despair, a rising tide of mutiny, and ultimately cannibalism. These latter movements are led by a memorably vicious small-minded runt of a troublemaker - just one in a cast of finely-drawn characters, including the bumbling and pompous Sir John Franklin, the unprepossessing but dedicated surgeon Goodsir, the “esquimaux” woman with no tongue (nicknamed “Lady Silence”), and, central to the whole story, Captain Crozier of the Terror, whose rockhard integrity, enormous bravery, ethical strength (although battling with alcoholism) and total dedication to the survival of his men shines like a beacon across a nightmare landscape. But always, roaring out of the dark, is the Beast.

The Terror is compulsive reading: huge, humanly engrossing, grindingly tragic. A great historical novel.

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