Monday, June 8, 2009

Books that stay with you

On the long flight back from Heathrow, I read Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic book, The Road. Father and son, wandering through a desolate landscape pushing a shopping cart (all the grey ash floating around and ruining the main character's health made me wonder if the apocalypse in this book wasn't figured as akin to 9/11, but happening everywhere). Cannibals, bomb shelters, etc. Science fiction readers have probably seen it all before, and while McCarthy's take on the plot was fine, I wasn't blown away by either that or his sentences. It was okay, was pretty much my reaction.

Yet I get the impression--from the hype as much as much as anything--that The Road is supposed to be one of those books that stay with you, that haunt you long after you finish them. But I don't think that it is such a book for me.

The book that I read recently that's really stuck with me is Dan Simmons's The Terror, which I read back in March. It is also, in a very different way, about the end of the world. But the characters in The Terror are the participants in a doomed arctic expedition on a foolish quest for the Northwest Passage. Their ships are frozen into the ice through two winters and the summer between them, and the food (and coal) supplies are running out. Worse, they are being terrorized by what seems (to the sailors) to be a super-sized polar bear, killing and rampaging and the like. And by the end, there's cannibalism here, too, if not bomb shelters.

All that is handled well enough, and Simmons, whose novels are sometimes of uneven quality, is at the top of his form here: this really is a good book--a terrifying novel, and without a speck of "evil," which is something I always like to see. But what really sticks with me is the depiction of the frozen cold world on the sea north of Canada, and the matter-of-fact routines of the sailors as they deal with that world. Flying to London, I kept trying to peek out the window to catch a glimpse of that world. I don't like the cold, and I don't want to starve, and I don't think I'd like to really go there. But that book made me want to see that place, and see it in the middle of winter, and live there.


Rosemary said...

This puts me in mind of the chilling--literally and figuratively--exhibit we saw at the British Library of Scott's last journal entries from his fatal Arctic expedition.

As his handwriting gets progressively more illegible, he acknowledges that they're never going to make it. At the bottom of the page, the heading reads "Final entry," and simply says, "God help our people." *Shudder*

Yeah, I wouldn't want to go that way, either.

Michael said...

Oddly, I have read both books and basically agree. The Road left me untouched--it's been done before and more effectively as more straightforward SF. I wasn't all that crazy about The Terror, especially the ending and the rather silly creature at the heart of it all, but I also agree that the atmosphere does stay with you.