Were I tasked to movie-pitch Dan Simmons's new novel (and what a splendid blockbuster it would make) I might try Jaws on Ice—except that makes it sound like a crew of professional skaters in spangly costumes tangling with a rubber-costumed monster, which it assuredly isn't. Then again, I might describe it as Something Nasty in the Igloo, save that the nasty entity—a towering, spectral something, shaped like a twenty-five-foot-tall polar bear with the sharpest of sharp claws and teeth—stays out of igloos, preferring to hunt the presumptuous white men who have strayed into its arctic realm. But what a tremendous example of popular fiction this novel is: gripping, vivid, exciting, dream haunting. It's hard to imagine this sort of book being much better written.
The story is a fictionalisation of the Franklin Expedition, a celebrated though foolish attempt by two Royal Navy ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—part of the novel's titular allusion) to sail round Canada and discover the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. This expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, a British naval hero of the Napoleonic wars and an individual with all of the qualities of a gentleman and none of the qualities of a polar explorer. The expedition, as in Simmons's novel, became icebound northwest of King William Island in 1846. They were still stuck there in 1848. Unable to find food and having failed to befriend the local Inuit, they succumbed to scurvy, starvation, and the cold. But it was not until the mid-1850s that their fate was known for certain, and in the interim a great many rescue missions set out to recover them. When a man named John Rae eventually did discover the expedition's remains a fierce debate arose as to whether they had resorted to cannibalism. Charles Dickens, for one, became fascinated by the expedition; he even wrote (with Wilkie Collins) a play based on it called The Frozen Deep (1857). For Dickens it was inconceivable that Englishmen would devour one another's flesh. The reality, almost certainly, was otherwise.
In Simmons's novel the depredations of starvation and extreme cold—very vividly and effectively rendered (at one point I was actually shivering in sympathy with the suffering sailors and had to go off to have a hot bath)—are made materially less pleasant by the something nasty on the ice. This entity has the habit of not only picking stray mariners from the ice and ripping them to bloody shreds but also roaming around the icebound ships, devouring and scattering limbs, and on occasion playing grisly games with the bodies: fitting the torso of one onto the legs of another and leaving the resulting amalgam leaning against the ship's rails, for instance. Sir John sets up a hide with his best shooters inside to ambush the beast, but it is no ordinary creature, and the attempt to shoot it results only in the riflemen being shredded and Sir John killed.
Thereafter command devolves upon Captain Francis Crozier, the novel's main character. Crozier is an Ulsterman and not quite a gentleman, and rather bitterly knows himself to be out of place; his grumpiness, his alcoholism, and latterly his cold-turkey withdrawal when his whisky runs out are all convincingly portrayed. This process awakens within him (or frees from its alcoholic suppression) Crozier's second sight, and he starts having visions of other places and times, but nothing in this strains the reader's credulity. By this stage in the novel Simmons has worked so assiduously to reproduce the hallucinogenic monotony and unendingness of his arctic environment that Crozier's visionary awakening seems an extension of the milieu rather than anything forced. Despite his efforts to keep his men alive, the sailors continue to die of exposure or are slaughtered by the terror on the ice. They eventually abandon the static ships and drag their boats south, hoping to reach Back's Great Fish River in northern Canada and thus make their way inland until they can find a trading post.
This otherwise entirely male environment is leavened by the mysterious figure of Lady Silence, an Inuit woman "between fifteen and twenty years old" who is, we're told, "by all indications virgo intacto." She is called Silence because she never speaks, and she never speaks because she has no tongue. "In Dr McDonald's opinion, her tongue had not been sliced off but had been chewed off near its root, either by Silence herself or by someone or something else" (p. 11). The reason for this startling tonguelessness becomes apparent towards the end of this lengthy novel, and Lady Silence works effectively as one of the mysterious elements that keep the plot moving along. My first thought was that Simmons—a writer who has previously shown himself sensitive to issues of cultural diversity and colonial/postcolonial logics—was making such a point here, Gayatri Spivak's famous "Can the Subaltern Speak?" question and all that. But as the novel worked on, I started to have doubts on this score.
For one thing, and despite the fact that the temperature is almost always between minus fifty and minus one hundred degrees Celsius, Lady Silence seems to be constantly getting her kit off, and Simmons returns repeatedly, with a slightly stare-eyed intensity, to descriptions of her breasts. "Sir John had almost recovered from the shock of seeing the Esquimaux wench naked . . . the coffee brown skin . . . high, round girl's breasts" (p. 165); "Lady Silence was on her knees, leaning forward . . . and her small breasts hung down" (p. 228); "Her own robe had slipped lower and both her bosoms were bobbing free" (p. 384); "All this time her bosoms remained bare and visible for Third Lieutenant John Irving's constant and appreciative, if not relaxed, perusal" (p. 386). Third Lieutenant Irving, indeed, cops more than one eyeful.
Lady Silence was about twenty feet away across a smooth blue-ice space. . . . She was naked, kneeling on thick furs. . . . [Irving] could see the curve of her right breast . . . [and] the hillocked flesh of her firm backside. (p. 290)
(I pause, for a moment, to say, "Hillocked?") A little later Irving meets some other Inuit and begins the process of learning their language with the crucial term amooq.
"Amooq?" said Irving. . . .
"Qaumaniq . . . Amooq!" said Tikerqat and made a two-handed, open fingered grabbing gesture in front of his own chest that was universal. (p. 483)
Lest this (universal? really?) point be missed, Simmons spells it out:
To make sure he got the point across, the hunter grabbed his wriggling woman—Irving had to think she was his wife—and quickly lifted her short, dark parka top. The girl was naked under the animal skin, and her breasts were, indeed, very large . . . very large for a woman so young. (p. 484, meditatively nodding ellipsis in the original)
Irving, we are told, "would have laid fifty quid that Amooq was the Esquimaux language equivalent of 'Big Tits.'" And fifty quid was a large sum of money in the 1840s . . . a very large sum. Irving's register rings untrue . . . very untrue for a British naval officer of the period, who would never refer to pounds sterling as "quid" or indeed call mammaries "tits" (the OED records the first appearance of that word as American, and as 1928).
Simmons runs the risk of straying, here, into "spung" territory. On the other hand, I suppose it could be argued that he is reproducing without necessarily endorsing the Western tendency to reduce native women to sexual objects. Certainly, by its end the novel has elegantly shifted about from a Western to an Inuit perspective, and Lady Silence changes from an oddly passive object to an active and attractively rendered subject. But it takes a long time to get there.
There are a couple of flaws in the novel, and one is this excessive length. It really doesn't need 769 pages to tell its story. It comes with a back-flap endorsement from Stephen King (who, he claims, is "in awe of Dan Simmons"), and whilst there is an unmistakeable King-like quality to this novel, Simmons can't quite manage King's skill at pacing a narrative—something, indeed, that King does better than almost any writer living. However readable The Terror is, it sags a little between pages one-hundred-ish and three-hundred-ish, where Simmons relies a little too heavily on the sudden attacks by the ice monster to hold the reader's attention. The problem is that the anonymity of most of the victims and the repetitive nature of the attacks yield diminishing returns. Things pick up once the crews abandon their stranded ships and attempt their overland trek, and by the end the pace moves as fast as arctic lightning.
Again, although he has done a good deal of research on the Franklin Expedition and the arctic environment, Simmons doesn't have a terribly good feel for the nineteenth-century milieu generally. Three examples, among many: I'd lay fifty quid, and throw in my pearly jacket and trousers to boot, that no Englishman then or now would use the phrase "buggering insane" (as in "That's buggering insane, Franklin!," p. 25); "ass-sliding" ("a climb, scuttle and ass-sliding descent," p. 91) is what an American, not a Brit, would do; and it's hard to believe that an able seaman of the 1840s, complimented on his good health, would reply, "I've always been lucky when it came to health . . . all due to heredity, I fear" (p. 605), when this sense of the word was not coined (by Herbert Spencer) until the 1860s.
But this is, on the whole, to nitpick. Overall the book creates a thoroughly believable and immersive world. There are, in addition, a number of extraordinarily powerful set pieces. The landscapes, particularly during the endless night of arctic winter, are expressively and evocatively described. There is a powerful scene towards the end when a nastily psychotic character goes madder than mad, believing himself to be a god. Having murdered most of his companions, he then freezes into a kind of literalised insane stasis. More, the final scenes, in which Crozier's second sight opens up to him the (in this novel literalised) Inuit realm of magic and myth, are genuinely affecting.
A couple of other things especially impressed me. One is the studied way Simmons avoids the too-pat tying up of loose ends. Indeed, and despite the fact that the novel's ending constitutes a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, he goes out of his way not to do this. Some of the men, but not others, are poisoned by eating their tinned supplies, and neither they nor the survivors nor the novel as a whole explains why, although Simmons knows (more recent expeditions have demonstrated that inefficient soldering leached lethally high quantities of lead into some of the tins). I admire Simmons for not spelling this out. More notably, HMS Terror is eventually discovered several hundred miles from its original icebound location, apparently (and impossibly) navigated there by a man with rabbit teeth, upon whose corpse Crozier stumbles. There's no historical basis for this, and no explanation as to ship or man is offered in the novel. Of course, this might be a teaser for a sequel, but I rather hope it isn't. It adds a seasoning tang of uncertainty to The Terror's closure.
Above all I admire the way Simmons here creates a distinctive and original fantastical vision that is at the same time powerfully—we might even say mythically—resonant of the best traditions of SF and fantasy. His arctic wastes reminded me of the closing scenes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with man and monster locked by fate in a hostile and blasted world, and equally of Beowulf, with the creature of the wilderness bursting in on huddling humanity and wreaking its terrible depredations. Despite occasional flaws this is a great shifting iceberg of a book, and highly recommended.