The Terror! The Terror!

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror is a story with a compelling idea at its heart – that the explorers are in a world for which they are poorly equipped and unprepared not just at a physical level, but at some deep philosophical or spiritual level. They are out of their element in so many ways.

The problem for me in reading it is that it took far too long to tell that story. It felt like it should have been a concise, tightly written suspense novel with a message bigger than the typical story of that genre. What it felt like instead was a sprawling, overly-detailed and often tedious account of what it’s like to live in one of the remotest places on earth.

There is so much repeat detail in there that it started to bore me – how many times do we need to be told of the crashing sounds of the ice ridges moving around, or that it’s a bit chilly outside and metal will freeze to your skin if you touch it? Details like this are important in a story, but there’s a point where the same thing repeated just becomes annoying.

About a hundred pages in I started skimming the book, jumping over the repetitive sections and the filler, trying to get to the interesting parts. There are striking visual images in this story, and some very well described set pieces that are well worth the read. For each one of those, however, there is a boring description of someone walking around, or a tedious digression.

Maybe it’s just that this wasn’t the story I wanted it to be. Maybe it’s perfectly fine and I came at it from the wrong direction, but I don’t think so. The early chapters and the late chapters I read in full. They were interesting and engaging and felt like they were going somewhere. The midsection – the bulk of the book – felt like it could have been comfortably cut by more than half and been a much better tale. It was too flabby by half, and some assertive editing could have made this a truly gripping read.

I was pre-disposed to like this story. I’ve read a fair bit about the expedition, and I like maritime themes and horror stories. As it is, I’m left feeling that the journey is just about worth it, but only if you shut your eyes now and then and doze through the boring bits. I hate to say this, but I think I’d enjoy this more as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. A trimmer, tighter narrative and this could have been a classic of the genre.