The Terror: Men Without Women

I read Dan Simmons’ doorstep novel The Terror a few years ago (and its kind-of sibling The Abominable) and enjoyed it. It’s a good holiday read, although I’m never really sure how any book ends up being 944 pages. Anyway, I was keen to watch the AMC TV series, and was delighted to see it turn up on the BBC iPlayer here in the UK.

The premise: in May 1845, two British exploration ships (HMS Terror and HMS Erebus) set out on a voyage to seek the fabled Northwest Passage.  The last time they’re seen by Europeans is in July of that year. By September of the following year, the two ships are trapped in the ice off King William Island and – apart from drifting with the ice – they never move again.

These expeditions knew about scurvy and were prepared to be iced-in for some period of time. They had canned food. They had steam engines. But the cans, it turns out, were sealed with lead solder, and many were (probably) infected with botulism.

Nobody knows what really happened, but Dan Simmons weaves a narrative that combines the probable with the fantastic. As the men slowly die from illness and lose their minds to lead poisoning, there is something else out there on the ice, and it has reason to hate them.

The 10-part series is a good watch, with an excellent cast, but, in the nature of these things, there are few parts for women.

I generally avoid things that ignore 50% of the human race. The Terror has one decent role for a woman (the interesting Greenlandic actor Nive Nielsen) and a couple of peripheral roles for wives and would-be girlfriends left at home. But mostly it’s men, and that’s the way it has to be, right? I mean, YOU CAN’T REWRITE HISTORY.

So of course this got me thinking. There’s Dan Simmons, wanting to write a ripping yarn. But he’s only got 900 pages to work with and that simply isn’t enough space to include many women. You can’t blame him really, and anyway, he has to work with the material that history bequeathes him.

And why is it, do you suppose, that history throws up so many all-boys stories like this? [strokes chin]

And, really, what were these 129 men thinking, disappearing off into the arctic wastes for years on end? Death or glory? Northwest Passage? Not really a thing, is it? And you could almost start believing that the Northwest fucking Passage might just have been a pretext for some men to get as far away from the women in their lives as they possibly could.

I read a Margaret Atwood short story once, which involved women weeping and waving goodbye as men went off to war, and then this process repeated itself over and over again in ever-accelerating cycles. I wish I could remember what it was called (I’m probably garbling it). Anyway, she’s written on this theme a few times I think. The Penelopiad retells The Odyssey from the point of view of the woman who is left at home. By doing this she highlights the absurdity of all these narratives featuring men without women, but also the misogynistic brutality at the heart of the tales.

The story about women sending men off to war is enough to make you wonder if, you know, war is just a fucking pretext for some men to get as far away from the women in their lives as they possibly could. A certain number of men just need to be put through the meat grinder and that’s just the way it has to be. YOU CAN’T REWRITE HISTORY, CAN YOU?

It’s almost as if our whole society is somehow set up to keep men away from women as much as possible. What else is football? And fishing? Don’t get me started.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the horrible news this week about the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard.

Do you know how old she was, by the way? If only there was some means of finding out. Because the fact is, I simply can’t get interested in this story unless I know her age. I mean, was she a teen, a cougar, a milf, or what? A granny? If she was over 50 I’m not interested, do you know what I mean? I DON’T MAKE THE RULES.

Anyway, Marina Hyde wrote a good thing today. And I’m left to conclude that perhaps more men should involve themselves in a quixotic search for the Northwest Passage.

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