Why are Antarctic exploration stories better than Arctic? Granted it's colder at the South Pole, but it's bad enough up North to give rise to tales of suitably shocking conditions. There's enough snow and ice both ends. We've got the auroras, the ships trapped and smashed in the pack ice at either pole. But the tales of the North have something of a point to them. The initial explorers hoped to find the Northwest Passage, making trade with China and India easier and thus more profitable. Forays north led to expansion of commercial whaling grounds, and innumerable journeys aimed to bring back survivors of the Franklin Expedition, which vanished with all hands in 1845. In contrast, the exploration of the Antarctic had no clear applications. Men who had wintered there were terrified by the sight of gnats when they returned to civilization, they had gotten so used to the utter lifeless blankness of the southern continent. Their toil there in unrelieved white and cold seemed meaningless. And meaninglessness is somehow much more interesting than anything done for an apparent purpose.
It is difficult to review Magnus Mills' new novel Explorers of a New Century because it revolves around a particularly stupendous surpise. Mills' earlier novels, All Quiet on the Orient Express, Restraint of Beasts, and Three to See the King, also hinge on some twist, where something that had seemed obvious or unnoteworthy is suddenly revealed as something different. In All Quiet, a hapless lad stays on at a decrepit campground after his summer holiday is over, doing odd jobs for the park's owner. He always intends to pack up soon and move on, but lingers, doing some repairs, some painting. He plays darts. He helps the boss's daughter with her homework. Then he decides that instead of painting all the rowboats a dull green, as he's been assigned to do, he'll use the other paint sitting in the shed, and do the boats up in different colors and contrasting trim. This is, of course, an enormous mistake with fatal consequences. Restraint of Beasts, Mills' first book, is a mostly realistic portrayal of dull Scottish fence-builders. They drink beer. They play darts. They don't follow directions very well. They make a few errors in judgment, which they mostly get away with. And then they don't.
In Three to See the King, the narrator lives in a house of tin, because he's always wanted to live in a house of tin. Of course there's a lot of sand to deal with. There's a question of a weathervane. And one day a woman shows up. And some other people. Then what was a very simple life becomes an apocalyptic journey down a canyon. And why they are all in the canyon, and who built the original tin hut, becomes very important to understand. Only Mills' amiable Scheme for Full Employment does not take the mundane into full-scale disaster. Not quite.
That is to say, I should have been prepared for Explorers of a New Century. It too is an allegory that comes off as simple deadpan comedy. No darts, but again, groups of men, their characters distinguished mostly by their different names, all speaking in the same caricatured common-sense straightforwardness. The meaningless toil that Mills explicates so well is here a burdensome trudge through an unknown land. The same boredom and mania that make high-tensile fence-laying seem so comic in Restraint of Beasts is here played out in a march through a dreary landscape, always under the watchful eye of a laconic boss. The protagonists are two teams, one evidently British, one presumably Norwegian, who have set out on competing expeditions to reach the so-called Agreed Furthest Point (AFP). The implication is that one team is sort of like Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, and the other is the efficient Roald Amundsen's. The terrain they traverse is not identifiably Antarctic, however. It's cold, but more in an uncomfortable than an extreme way. The English team's preoccupation seems to be whether they should all wear their woolly helmets, or only those who feel they need them. On the Norwegian team, one of the members is quite good at tying knots. He's also a good cook, and can make their reconstituted food taste a little different every day. This is about all that keeps the story going for a good seven-eighths of the book, delivered in Mills' slightly stilted and exceedingly plain prose.
And I should be very worried. I know that what happens in Magnus Mills' books is profound, that some little incident will lead to an act of violence, that great spiritual gulfs will be revealed. In Mills' world, it's not good to be aimless. It's not good to muddle along. It's not good to be preoccupied with petty jealousy. The fact is, other more ruthless people will have made plans for you, while you were laying that fence, painting that boat, leading that mule to the AFP. Mills' characters don't raise their heads, they don't understand, they are puzzled, tentative, and preoccupied with the details of their stupid jobs. So they get caught in a grand scheme laid out by the cunning, the ruthless, the visionary.
Scott and Amundsen's race to the pole has been told in numerous books since Scott died in 1912 in a tent a few miles from a supply depot, returning from a goal that had already been conquered a month earlier by the Norwegians. Probably the best account of the doomed Scott expedition is Apsley Cherry-Gerard's The Worst Journey in the World, first published in 1922. Cherry, as he was called, joined the exploration party despite his poor eyesight, and he comes off as an earnest good fellow, full of affectionate regard for his comrades. His pluck and enthusiasm, his keeping his chin up, are everywhere evident, so that when he says of his experiences that he longed to die, we know things were very bad indeed. Cherry and two others elected to take a mid-winter journey of some weeks duration in order to collect Emperor penguin eggs. Scott had twice asked the group not to go. Travel in Antarctica was only barely possible during the brief summer months, when weather was relatively warm and the sun was up. Cherry's gang set out in darkness, pulling two heavily laden sledges themselves (no dogs or ponies) in temperatures that swung as low as minus 77 degrees.
"Why this venture?" Cherry-Gerard asks. "Why is the embryo of the Emperor penguin so important to science?" He answers that "because the Emperor is probably the most primitive bird in existence. . . the working out of his embryology is important. . . . The embryo of an Emperor may prove the missing link between birds and the reptiles from which birds have sprung." Yet clearly even to Cherry himself, the search for penguin eggs is not so crucial that three men should endure such horrific conditions. In the intense cold, the men's sweat froze their clothes, encasing them in solid ice. Their sleeping bags too became tunnels of ice, and they spent hours trying to gradually thaw a space for their legs so they could then lie down in agony. Cherry's shivers were so intense he feared his back would break. "Things must improve," the adventurers say to each other, as each day seems to be the worst it could possibly be. Yet it gets worse -- inexhaustible gales, an accident with the cookstove, the tent blows away, they must reduce their rations. "I am not going to pretend that this was anything but a ghastly journey. . ." writes Cherry. "Nothing could express its horror." All that made it bearable were the good spirits of his two companions, Wilson and Bowers.
Cherry's companions survived the winter trek, but died with Scott on the return from the Pole. Finding the South Pole was not a scientific necessity any more than grabbing penguin eggs was essential to the development of human knowledge. Getting there first was paramount, it was understood, yet the trip could not be spoken of as sport, competition, or conquest. Accurate measurements had to be taken with expensive and heavy equipment. Samples had to be collected. That Amundsen, raised in Norway, a life-long skier, expert at dog-sledding, simply set off for the South Pole, got there, and came back, always seemed to the British completely unsporting. You couldn't do something like that just to win. It had to be ennobled by the spirit of scientific inquiry. Yet this veil was very thin. When Cherry-Gerard finally presented his penguin eggs to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, he was forced to wait in a chair in the hall while the Chief Custodian entertained a more important visitor. The eggs weren't worth all that much.
Scott's death encapsulated all that was good, brave, and tragic. He died needlessly, not on the way to the pole but on the way back. Any of hundreds of what-ifs could have saved him. Scott's companion Oates simply went out into the cold, saying "I may be some time," as his way of dying out of sight of his pals, an understated eloquence cartoonish in its grandeur. Scott was a useless hero, unlike that mother cat that pulled her kittens out of a burning building. But that didn't matter. The absurdity of the venture was what made it so grand.
Then in the 1980s, several books brought a different perspective to the story, portraying Scott as a "bungler." These are Diana Preston's Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the Pole and Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth. These are painful to read. Scott is portrayed as a man of moderate abilities, jumping at the chance to lead the Antarctic expedition simply as a good career move. Amundsen is shown as busy acquiring from early boyhood the qualities that made him a success -- he skis, he skates, he learns from wise mentors. And most importantly, Amundsen chose to take sled dogs down South, while Scott relied on Siberian ponies and on "man-hauling." You who have spent years reading all the Antarctic exploration stories available are suddenly brought down, too. It wasn't a grandly useless trip. It was just poorly done. Scott only deserved to be middle management. He made errors in judgment, which he mostly got away with. And then he didn't.
I guarantee you, all this is important in Explorers of the New Century, though the actual history is never mentioned. What happens so dreadfully, finally, shows the immense contrast between points of view of the competing teams. One team accomplishes its mission, the other ends up in a very complicated situation. And it's not a situation I know what to think of. Mills is not advocating anything, I think, but just showing something, and it's taken me some time to sort out what it means to me. What is human? What is a compromise, what is a muddle? What is vision, revolution? It becomes frightening to have to confront this with so little preparation. Mills springs huge questions masterfully, really with one single word. And the grand, powerful, strange and terrifying arises not out of nowhere but out of ridiculous squabbling and dull plodding.
And where are the women? Mills' five novels all center on men wrapped up in very masculine worlds. They drink beer. They drive vans. They repair roofs. They don't really deal with women at all, and if they do, they don't get it. Women seem too much of a mystery for the men to figure out. In all his books, but perhaps most strikingly in Explorers, the realization that women are there, and that they have been there all along, is what leads to collapse. It's these little separate worlds with their own rules that are so comfortable, and that get riven. Not that women are the villains, by any means. It's the obsession and self-absorption of the men in their small, handleable, stupid and emotionless worlds that is mocked.
Mills' trajectory as a novelist has been from slightly skewed realism to a kind of pared-down surrealism. In Restraint of Beasts, the way the fencer Tam screws the cap back on an empty beer bottle before chucking it out the window of his parked truck is hilarious, precisely observed, and instantly evocative of Tam's generally wasted efforts. The gloomy lake in All Quiet seems a recognizably British landscape, while Three to See the King is set on a windswept plain that could be on any continent or planet. Explorers could almost be read as science fiction, if Mills were to tell us his dusty Antarctica is the result of centuries of global warming, and if he explained the race to the AFP as the plots of competing post-apocalyptic superpowers. Mills thankfully avoids any detail that might pin his fairytale down in this way. By the same token, he avoids giving us a lesson. Because of what I can't say about this book without spoiling it, I'm afraid I'll leave the impression that Explorers has some kind of Lord of the Flies nastiness to it. Be assured, Mills does not bludgeon us with a moral. While showing us some of the worst ways humans behave, there is much that remains unresolved, mysterious, and open to question. This irresolution -- what is he saying? -- is much more interesting than an apparent purpose.