Arctic and Antarctic exploration isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with all our modern equipment, from motor oil designed to continue lubrication in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to nutritionally complete, long-lasting foodstuffs. However, at least those modern explorers and scientists know that, should they be lost in the frozen wastelands of the Polar Regions, their remains will be located and returned to surviving (and mourning!) family members. This was not always so in the Golden Age of Exploration…and that’s at the heart of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England in search of the Northwest Passage, a theory propounded by geographers and scientists of the day to the effect that there was a navigable passage up and over the top of what is now Canada1, and a geographic phenomenon most earnestly sought by the economic forces of the day for a variety of reasons2. No one from this expedition was ever seen again in their homeland. Their last confirmed position was near Beechy Island, though they almost certainly made it to King William’s (Is)Land.
In theory, Franklin and his backers did everything right. The commander of the expedition and the two men captaining the ships had considerable years of experience in polar exploration between them, not to mention maritime skills gained through a lifetime. The ships used, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been taken down to the Antarctic by James Ross a few years previously, and had in the interim been reinforced with iron sheathing and cross-grained wood planking to resist crushing in the pack ice, outfitted with steam engines and rudders that could be retracted into iron-sheathed protective wells to avoid being themselves being crushed in the shifting ice. The expedition brought three years’ worth of canned, dried and salted provisions for what was intended to be no more than a two year long expedition, not to mention each ship had a library of over 1,000 volumes with which it was presumed the crew could amuse themselves during the inevitable periods of being trapped in the ice.
Only of course it didn’t work out, and we’ll never be quite sure why. There are a few plausible real-world issues that contributed to the loss of both ships and all the men. All the problems that plagued previous expeditions worried at the heels of this one: inadequately equipped for a hostile climate, inadequate clothing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate transport, and so on. In this particular expedition’s case, however, their food and water supplies were almost certainly (and quite literally) stacked against them; not only were the supplies of drinking water piped through lead conduits, the canned food had been prepared in haste by a supplier himself inadequately prepared to provide such a large order, and the modern guess is that as a result, the cans were not only poorly sealed (with lead welding, yet), they were also contaminated with silent botulism.
Dan Simmons has put forth a theory of his own: a supernatural creature, inexplicable and unstoppable, that is prowling around the ships in the dark. All the crews of the two ships know is that it is vengeful and is somehow related to the mutely tongueless Inuit woman they found on the ice, with a similarly voiceless older Inuit man. As that second winter, the first off King William Sound, progresses, the creature encroaches further, the ice presses closer and the darkness is increasingly oppressive….and I’ll stop there. Gotta leave some suspense for anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to.
The short version of my take on the novel is that Simmons could have left out the supernatural/religious element entirely, and it wouldn’t have adversely or even appreciably affected the novel3. Aren’t prowling polar bears enough? I don’t mind supernatural elements inserted into what would be otherwise a prosaically mundane work, if it’s done well and is made a critical component of the new work; I loved Simmons’ Drood. Even the suggestion that some of the crew members might have joined up with the local Inuit is not entirely implausible. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the cleverer and more open-minded crew members to realize “Hey, if we make nice with this group of people that is not only surviving but thriving where we are dying, maybe we too will survive?”
That said, I’d still heartily recommend the novel to anyone interested in reading a well-written description of what it might have been like on that doomed expedition. Just skip the bits about the phantom whatever-it-is. Having read non-fiction about the Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration over the years, not least Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North, Simmons did get the historical part right, so far as I can tell. Even today, we have no real idea what precisely happened to Franklin’s expedition, though I believe modern scientists have found some traces of the Erebus and the Terror, but now as then, the basic assumption is “missing, presumed dead”.
1In fairness, there is a sea route twiddling through the islands scattered north of continental Canada. In the main, however, it is not navigable by anything larger than an umiak for more than about thirty seconds during a heat wave in August.
2While there was a certain element of the “Because it’s there.” drive that motivated all those European expeditions up Everest, seeking a trade route more convenient that slogging all the way down around Tierra del Fuego served as a more pragmatic reason. Of course, the Panama and Suez canals have obviated much of that…
3It’s not Simmons’ fault that I can’t help wondering why the British Navy kept giving their ships names like Erebus, Hecla, Fury and Terror. You’re going to the polar regions for Pete’s sake. Wouldn’t names like Tranquility or Tahiti been more cheering?