Thursday, January 04, 2007

Great Minds

A friend of mine who is familiar with my current work in progress novel recently asked me if an upcoming movie that appears to partially overlap with my story makes me mad. I told him honestly that no, but it does give me things to think about. Mainly because it appears to happen routinely.

I'm a big fan of the Sir John Franklin mystery. He sailed out of England in the mid-nineteenth century with three ships, sent out by John Barrow to finally nail down the location of the fabled Northwest Passage. Outside of two frozen corpses and a fragmentary note recovered years later, neither he nor his men were ever heard from again.

His disappearance spawned numerous "rescue" attempts, even attracting a newspaperman from Ohio who, with no previous relevant experience, left his wife to organize and lead two separate missions. His focus was on the "esquimaux" and the evidence that they could provide, which turns out to be quite significant although somewhat confusing. The inuit proved to have quite accurate memories regarding historical facts even though they may have been handed down orally across generations. The problem was that they had no accurate conception of time and routinely jumbled together accounts that should have been separated by centuries in some cases.

The Ohio man, Charles Francis Hall, later died on the way home from his second voyage. He argued with his expedition doctor and is widely believed to have been gradually poisoned by him but not before learning interesting facts about Franklin's crew. Interesting stuff.

Eventually an explorer name McClintock found a cairn with a document from an officer indicating an alarming number of crewmen deaths, including the date of Franklin's demise (although without noting a cause), with a further note added later indicating the survivor's intentions. The two ships had been trapped in ice and subsequently sunk with the crew dragging boats and supplies (including monogrammed silver (?)) and heading for Fish's Back River in Canada, upstream from a trading outpost. There was also evidence of cannibalism.

Dickens wrote about Franklin, including collaborating on a play with Wilkie Collins, but didn't believe gentlemen would resort to eating each other. The last anyone knows, a handful of men, five or six out of a hundred and twenty (if memory serves), made it to the river but then disappeared utterly. The saga was over, possibly never to be solved.

Ironically, the location where the ships went down, as indicated by the found note, is actually part of the Northwest Passage. As it turns out it is usually so hazardous and filled with ice that the discovery is useless. People have made the passage but as an adventure, not as evidence of a viable commercial route.

Dozens of books have been written about Franklin, his doomed expeditions, and Charles Francis Hall. Some of the books are by his would be rescuers, some detail the Inuit testimony related to Hall, and one focuses on the two corpses found buried from a time when the expedition first reached the Artic. It supposes the men, as well as the entire expediton, suffered from lead poisoning due to shoddily canned food.

Back to the point, once upon a time I thought it would be a fascinating thing to write a novel about the doomed expedition, taking into account a detailed timeline of all the available information. Next Tuesday Dan Simmons' new book, The Terror, will be released. It's named for one of Franklin's ships. Apparently he introduces some kind of evil creature to the story, likely a departure from whatever actually happened, but all the advance reviews I've seen praise it lavishly.

I'm tempted to quote Homer Simpson every time this happens to me because really, that's all you can do. If there's something to be derived from this, it's that an idea means nothing if you don't execute it. Let the other guy come out on the other end for once. Or more than once.


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