Thursday, July 5, 2018

July Reads Part One

The Terror by Dan Simmons
The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

I bought The Terror the day it was released, way back in January of 2007. I had graduated university, during which I devoured his Hyperion Cantos, all four books, and had dabbled in some of his other books (such as the eye-rollingly bad Darwin's Blade, a novel I'm shocked I managed to finish) but none of his non-science fiction works excited me. The Terror has a cracking premise: what if the lost Franklin Expedition was actually picked off by a terrible beast? The first time I read it, I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple hundred pages but I stalled out, thanks to Simmons' renowned loquacity and clumsy exposition. This time, I had a bit more luck (opting to check the item out from my local library, instead of buying the book a second time).

Simmons does a lot of research for his novels and he wants you to know it. Every page feels crammed with arcane facts and hyper-specialized jargon gleaned from endless hours of research. However, where Simmons stumbles—other than his notorious and well-documented Islamophobia—is the integration of research into narrative. I'm the last person to quibble that exposition feels forced or unnatural. I'm not married to realism. However, sometimes Simmons gives us a bit of prose so cumbersome as to elicit chortles. Here's a tin-eared chunk from page 368:
Bridgens smiled. "I was almost jealous when he lent you that book. What was it? Lyell?"
"Principles of Geology," said Peglar. "I didn't really understand it. Or rather, I did just enough to realize how dangerous it was."
"Because of Lyell's contention about the age of things," said Bridgens. "About the very un-Christian idea that things change slowly over immense aeons of time rather than very quickly due to very violent events."
Not only does it sound awful but it doesn't quite make sense. Why would Bridgens be jealous a book was lent to anybody if he didn't know what it was? And also, if he knew what it was, and what the book was about, why would he be jealous? The next page features something even worse:
"Charles Babbage?" said Peglar. "The fellow who tinkers with many odd things including some sort of computing engine?"
Barf. I do like historical fiction and I especially like anachronistic historical fiction—historical fiction is, by definition, a construction and a fantasy, so why adhere so strictly to "historical fact" which is meaningless. However, the knowing winks and prodding elbows like that aforementioned Babbage line provide more cringes than the warm comfortable knowledge. That's all these knowing asides are for: comforting the reader, making them feel smart for "getting" the joke. It's empty manipulation. 

When Simmons lets go of this ungainly style and stretches forward into phantasmagoria, I'm entirely on board. The main protagonist, Captain Crozier, quits drinking after his private reserves run out and he goes through intense withdrawal. Instead of portentous dreams laden with symbolism, Simmons flashes forward and across space, giving Crozier glimpses of his fate and how the lost Expedition touches other lives. It's all the more horrifying because the reader knows everybody's eventual future (death on the ice) and Crozier does too; there's little he can do to avoid it.

The Terror is pretty good but boy does it need a trim. The climax happens with ~100 pages still to go. There's a killer 500 page novel in here but without that long steady march to oblivion which characterizes much of the horror (not the monster but the survivalist stuff) it might not be as effective.

I read The Light at the End by Skipp and Spector back in October of 2016. I wrote of that novel, "The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast" and the same can be applied to The Bridge. Where the former novel fascinated me for its depiction of a dystopic New York City, the latter, with its didactic environmentalism and abundance of characters, frustrated me. When The Bridge is describing its horrors, its wonderfully over-the-top abominations, the novel works for me. When it's introducing yet another character, an inevitable victim for the meat grinder, I was a bit impatient. I wish The Bridge had been a bit longer or a bit shorter. With more room, characterization, something Skipp and Spector are quite good at, could have improved. I guess I keep wondering how and why these two authors could produce something as sweet and caring as Animals but be more well known for obviously inferior stuff like The Bridge. If the Bridge and The Light at the End and The Clean-Up (which I found for 2 bucks at a local bookstore just recently) are what Skipp and Spector are famous for, what influenced and impacted a generation of horror writers, then imagine how much more ahead of the curve they were with Animals, a stupendous exercise in empathy (a key ingredient in effective horror). I still liked The Bridge but I wanted something more or something leaner. At its current length, it's not quite enough or it's too much to be the shock it wants to be.

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