Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Terror

So here's a heartfelt, but qualified recommendation. I'll get to the heartfelt part later, but first the qualifications...

There are many reasons to read Dan Simmons' The Terror. Many. But don't - please, just don't - read it if you can't deal with multiple point of view characters. Don't read it if you have a problem with long books. Don't read it if you think historical novels have to follow some literal version of the truth. Don't read it if your such a buff on Sir John Franklin's last expedition that you're only looking to find fault in a novelist's version. And don't read it if you can't stomach scurvy, murder, amputations, cannibalism, and generally watching white guys flail...

And it's not that I look down on you if those things don't work for you in fiction. Honestly, I don't for a minute think that my wife would like this book. She gets my utmost respect, but the descriptions of scurvy alone would do her in. So, I'm just saying, if this book ain't for you it ain't for you...

Okay. If you're still here... The Terror is an amazing book. As a writer of historical fiction, I know exactly how complex and difficult it is to render historical material credibly. Simmons does that. Early on I forget that I'm reading an American author at all. His predominantly British characters are completely credible, rendered in a variety of formats, intimate third person, journal entries, omniscient and even fairly mystical moments.

This is, ostensibly, the tale of Franklin's 1840s expedition and its doomed search for the Northwest Passage. But Simmons doesn't let the sparsity of real historical detail - the fact that the expedition's two ships disappeared with very few signs of what might have happened to the crew - get in the way of his imagined history. Nor does he limit it to straight historical fiction.

Right from the start we are told of a "thing on the ice" that is tormenting the trapped ships. It's hard to know what it is exactly, but the wondering and speculating is part of what makes the novel so engaging.

No doubt, it is a long haul at 784 pages, but I'm not one to throw stones at large books. For me, this novel is a remarkable bit of detailed, nuanced historical fiction. It's also a work of Gothic horror. I'd argue that it's ultimately more mystical than horrific, but in order for that to make any sense you'd have to read it to the end. By the way, I rather liked the end. I won't say a thing about it, other than to note that I, for one, did not feel let down by how it all played out.

Okay, enough from me. I liked the book. If you want some other opinions there are many out there, including these...

Here's the New York Times Review.

Here's the Washington Post Review.

Here's the Agony Column Review.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Dirk said...

I've really enjoyed some of Dan Simmons' books in the past but ever since I read this thing that he wrote: http://www.dansimmons.com/news/message/2006_04.htm

I pretty much refuse to buy any of his books.

3:16 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:22 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

First: David, I bought this book, partly on your recommendation, partly because I've been eyeing it since it came out, and partly because I get a discount at Borders. As soon as I finish Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt, I'm diving into The Terror.

Second: I went and read that essay that Dirk gave the link to. While I can see how some people might be offended by it, I think it was written somewhat as a "What if?" exercise on our current world difficulties, spending its time on one specific problem; and not as any sort of "Stupid Liberals Ruining the Planet" rant. While Simmons may very well be far to the right of my own position, most people are, and I can't very well go around ostracizing people just because they don't think the way I do.

The only author I can immediately think of that I will not read any longer is Orson Scott Card, not because of his position on gay marriage, but because he uses his status to put force behind his views. I understand his religion, but even so, there is no need for the language and attitude he promotes. But that is an exceedingly rare case for me. (OK, I won't go to Old Navy because of their commercials, and I stayed away from my favorite bookstore for two years because of am issue during a signing, but that was forgiven and I shop there all the time now. (not Old Navy, the bookstore.))

Anyway, Dirk is, of course, more than welcome to stay away from an author based upon that author's views, and I applaud anyone in this current societal climate of situational ethics and sliding moralities who stand by their principles. I'm just wondering what could possibly have caused dirk to have this opinion about that specific bit of speculative fiction.

4:23 AM  
Blogger Dirk said...

I think that bit of fiction Simmons wrote is a horrible bit of fear mongering. I have no problem with people having different views than I do but Simmons put his considerable writing skills to work to help foster a climate of terror and hatred. I think we have enough of that already and getting more people fired up against another large group of people is not cool in my book.

10:31 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

I wholeheartedly disagree with your characterization of Simmons' bit of fiction.

I will not argue the politics of his writing with you, since this is not a political blog - suffice to say I am far, far to the left, in the Green region, and many of the ideas he put forth in this piece are completely in line with mine own. (Separation of church and state, danger of theocracy, religion as a poor justification for war.) In fact, one could almost argue the most base underlying point of the entire essay is that organized religion in most any form seems to be inherently dangerous, and any deep understanding of the tenets would display an unwillingness to be tolerant of other beliefs. This is a very left-leaning concept and a compelling one for discussion.

As far as the idea that he is fear mongering or fostering a climate of terror or hatred, I would put forth that he has neither the pulpit nor the inclination to do so. He does not use access to the mass media or television stations to propagate his views; instead he puts an essay on his blog for anyone who wants to come to him and read it to do so. Hardly fostering or fear mongering.
He is merely stating his opinion in a well-reasoned and clear manner. Whether or not I agree with his conclusion is irrelevant - he makes a fair point based upon the information he uses. Hardly spreading a climate of terror or riling people up.

The way I see it, he basically starts with a hypothesis, what if Islam is not the religion of peace that it claims to be, and uses historical fact to support his speculative fiction. He takes it to an extreme, to be sure, but a logical one. And unless you have read all the information he references (I have not), you have to concede he may even be right, in his own way.

Historically, many other authors have done the same thing: Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, Swift in A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels, Huxley in Brave New World. Everything they have said has not come to pass, but some of it has, if to a lesser degree. Who's to say that what Simmons' has written does not have some merit? Swift did not truly advocate selling and eating babies - from the tone of the essay I'm not sure I believe Simmons' advocates the wholesale slaughter of Muslims, which seems to be what some people on his forums, and maybe even yourself, are taking from his writing.

Anyway, I'm not trying to offend here, I'm just expounding upon my earlier post and making conversation.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

Believe what you like, I found the story originally because some right winger forwarded it to me as a 'reason' why we should be invading Iran. If the thing is on the forwarding list for these people, then it is being used to foster fear and anger.

10:46 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Well, anybody who is looking for something can find it somewhere, even if it doesn't actually exist in the place they are looking.

If someone can find a reason to invade Iran in a piece of speculative fiction, then I suppose they can find a reason to do just about anything from just about anywhere. That doesn't mean that was the intended point, and it doesn't mean we should demonize the writer/filmmaker/artist/etc for creating it.

Charles Manson thought The White Album was a call for racial war and used it as justification for his atrocious acts. No one blames The Beatles.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

I think comparing The White Album to this story is comparing apples to oranges. Or even apples to Buicks.

I think the story was carefully crafted by Simmons to inspire fear of Islam in anybody that read it. You disagree. So it goes.

12:57 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

The fact that you think I am comparing this story to The White Album shows that you really are not grasping my points. I was merely stating the individuals ability to read into anything whatever they are looking for instead of what may actually be said.

In Superman, Lex Luthor says, "Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe." The point being, your right-winged friend saw in Simmons' piece a reason to invade Iran. (Which, until you said that, never even crossed my mind.) You saw a reason to dislike Simmons' because you disagree with his opinion (Which may not even actually be his opinion, just an extrapolation of possibility based upon his reading of a series of facts.) I see a reasoned expression of someone's innermost thoughts, which may or may not be his actual POV, but which is more likely A POV based upon, as I said above, his understanding of history and an apparent reading of the religious literature available.

Obviously, Simmons' has a vaster understanding of these things than I do, and you have shown no proof that you have looked any further into this than just the surface, so even while we discuss his thoughts, we have to accede that his opinions are not mere emotional venom but well reasoned and intelligent concepts.

Again, I may not agree with all of his conclusions,which I do not, but I can accept and understand his points without taking them for my own. He is obviously interested in discourse as he provides a forum to discuss the piece, which stands pretty far removed from your statement that he is some sort of demagog inciting an unsuspecting populace into new heights of hate and fear.

Anyway, I see now that you are unwilling to accept an alternate theory or give it more than a surface consideration, so this will be my last comment on this. Thanks for the discussion.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

True, people can read anything into anything and true, you were not comparing this work directly to The White Album, but, my point is that this isn't just a gum wrapper that some wacko read and decided it was telling him to kill all Muslims. This work was deliberately written to instill fear and mistrust.

Simmons is a master writer. He's a smart guy. He didn't just happen to write a time travel story that portrays an entire religion as scary as this one does.

Considering the time he wrote it, considering what is going on in the world when he wrote it, considering the state of mind of most Americans when he wrote it, it sure seems like he wrote it deliberately to incite people.

That is how it is different than the randomness of Manson and The White Album. And that is why I refuse to support him in any way.

2:35 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Dirk and Paranoyd,

Well that was an interesting conversation you two got up to! My silence has only been because I've been away camping for a few days on the coast. Three days without internet access - that's rare for me these days.

When I get a chance, I'll take a look at the Simmons essay/story. I haven't read it, nor have I read any other Simmons' novels. And I haven't met him yet either. I've always had the suspicion that I wouldn't see eye to eye with him on some political things, but the most extended experience I've had with him - reading THE TERROR - was a good one. If I find out that he holds views I don't like that will be unfortunate, but it won't change the fact that this one book was really quite good.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

3 days on the coast camping sounds great! We were up at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park last year for 3 days. It's pretty nice. Going again this year.

I'm sure The Terror is good. I've like Simmons' other stuff that I've read. Maybe I'll check it out if it shows up at the library. I won't be buying it though :)

10:48 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

I'm enjoying the book so far. I'm less that 100 pages in, but it's very interesting, and certainly evokes a sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

It reminds me of the John Carpenter movie The Thing.

On the other thing - I have no problem with people having different views - most people do; I'm pretty odd. I DO have a problem with people using their views as a hammer to intentionally oppress another group of humans.

I'm not sure it's enough to simply have a view and write about it. I do that all the time. But I draw a line at recruiting people to act upon those views. I think that is the main difference between the piece that Simmons' wrote and Orson Scott Card actively campaigning against gay marriage, for instance.

10:19 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

Glad you're liking it. As soon as I saw that you were reading it, I was like "Oh, what have I done! It's a long-ass book. Maybe I'm the only one that likes it!" That's absurd, of course, because Simmons has tons of readers and many, many of them have enjoyed this book. Also, I do lay out my warnings about the book ahead of time. So, if you're in it great. I hope you stick through all the way to end. That's part of what I find most interesting about it; and I think some readers who didn't like the book didn't get that far.

As for OSC... I have enjoyed several of his novels in the past, but I agree I can't read him the same way anymore. As ever, I'm reluctant to condemn him because I've only heard bits and pieces of his thoughts on things. Partially, the bits and pieces are my fault for gathering information randomly. But it's partially his fault for seeming damn random on a lot of stuff.

But I can be specific on some things. Like, I've no patience for anti-gay rhetoric. To me, that's as limiting a perspective as being racist or misogynist. It reflects a lack of understanding of the human experience that I can't accept any more than I can accept... clear racism in the work of authors from the past. If you couldn't - in 1850 let's say - look at a black person and see their complete humanity you weren't paying attention. You were not as smart, or talented, or witty, or as universal as you might have thought.

As writers, we're supposed to be - and often are - better than that. If we're not, why should people read us?

12:28 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

"If you couldn't - in 1850 let's say - look at a black person and see their complete humanity you weren't paying attention. You were not as smart, or talented, or witty, or as universal as you might have thought."

I find this very interesting.

While I agree with the statement of complete humanity (you know my position on race), I've always been of the opinion that racial attitudes specifically, but prejudices of any kind generally, were due more to upbringing than most anything else.

In this day and age, having access to knowledge that we are all humans, regardless of color (or sexual preference), makes any sort of prejudice indefensible.

As a historian, you would have a better idea than I about the view points of the societies back then, but I was under the impression that while there were those against slavery, racism was not considered, well, at all. Certain races; be they black, Irish, Asian, whatever; were just "less" than white Europeans, and it wasn't really a question anyone thought about.

I'm not giving anyone a pass on racism, you understand. I just always thought the question of racism "back then" was rather like a question about algebra on a vocabulary quiz - algebra would not even cross your mind, so how would you know to be mindful of it?

1:43 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

Great points. I think everything you said are well-considered and credible aspects of this question. And I can't really speak as an historian. I'm an amateur in that regard - really just a thief looking for great source material. But...

I do believe that the norms/knowledge of the times don't explain why people accept prejudices. I guess I really don't believe it's inherently possible for someone that wants to see the humanity in the black man standing before him not to see it - if he's willing to see it. Science and religion etc shape things, but they don't change the fundamental reality of what we are as human beings. No matter how different we are, there is always a completely sentient being behind the eyes. That didn't become true because our science got better. It was always true, and I think that there were many people in all ages that knew it. That fell in love, had children, raised families across those apparent divides. I don't think we know enough about these realities because it's easier for us to access the written rules and records and accepted versions of the past. There's a lot more to it than that.

I made that original statement in reference to writers. Writers are charged with being more observant than non-writers. Of course they are. If they're not why read them? They should work hard to see things that other folks don't, and then to introduce those observations into consideration for everyone. We do that in many ways; we also fail to do it in many ways.

By the way, it doesn't seem to be that known fact has much impact on people who WANT to believe things that are counter to those facts. Science hasn't made nearly the dent in religion that one might think it would have, for example. We believe because we want to, not really because we have to.

I think there's another factor that can't be ignored in all of this. Self-interest. Most of us are inclined to "believe" the things that we perceive to be in our benefit. Even if we don't believe we still often accept the "beliefs" of others if it... is in our interests to do so. I'm thinking T Jefferson here. (Actually, as I write this I can hear the Jefferson Hour playing on NPR in the living room.) I'm no scholar, but my understanding of him is that he wrote a great many things about slavery that were progressive beyond what was possible at the time. Instead of pushing those issues, though, he managed his beliefs with a politician's awareness of reality. And he managed his estate with a plantation owner's awareness of economic realities. And he managed the affairs of his bed in accordance with a master's powers over his slaves... Do I think that he believed he was having sex with a creature that was something less than a complete person? No, I don't believe that. He was far too smart a man for that. But in a way that makes his actions (and inactions) worse.

Anyway, this has moved a bit off topic. To bring it back to The Terror... I'd be curious to hear what you think of the transformation a certain character goes through the end. In some ways it speaks to this subject...

10:45 PM  

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