No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

#1: Explorers of the New Century -- Magnus Mills

Explorers of the New Century is a novel with a twist: that is, it's plain that there is a twist from the blurbs on the back, which hail 'alternate history' and 'parable' and 'satire'. Right, so it's not, or not only, a fictionalised account of the Scott / Amundsen race to the South Pole, then ... There are plenty of similarities. The characters are two bands of explorers; one group have exagerratedly English surnames, Scagg and Summerfield and Johns, while the other group -- Tostig, Snaebjorn, Thegn -- seem Scandiwegian. The setting is an icy waste, full of natural hazards such as scree and river-gorges, with both parties traversing it, by different routes, on their way to the AFP or Agreed Furthest Point. The dialogue is excessively polite and jovial, even in extremity: "'The task requires both daring and judgment; one slip could mean certain death. I thought I'd give you first refusal.''Thank you, sir.'"

There are distinctions, of course. They're heading north (away from civilisation): they're all inspired, not by a geographical point, but by a book, 'The Theory of Transportation'. Scott and Amundsen had dogs: these explorers, far from their nameless homelands (though both groups come from 'wayfaring races') are accompanied by mules.

And there are plenty of clues that all's not quite as it seems. There's certainly something odd about the explorers' concern for the mules that carry their supplies -- one of the English party is sent back to the ship and takes with him a number of female mules, thus imbalancing the numbers and messing up the breeding pairs. But mules are sterile ... Actually, I'm beginning to think that there's another layer of meaning in there. Both Johns' group and Tostig's are all-male, yet none of them speak of wives and sweethearts at home -- mothers, yes, but not women for whom they harbour romantic (or sexual) feelings. And Medleycott is very concerned about the sleeping arrangements ...

And is it a coincidence that Johns and Medleycott share a birthday?

And what are the blue stones for? Art, or something more ... significant?

It's a fairly short novel (184 pages) and the twist comes slightly over halfway through. I've read reviews that claim it's all allegory: reviews that interpret the twist in a (wilfully?) naive way: reviews that seem to completely miss everything I've mentioned above, and reviews that give a number of (supportable) readings to the tale and its rather bleak conclusion. (Bleak if you're not Johns or his party, anyway.)

It's one of those books I'd like to press upon friends and acquaintances, just to find out what they think -- except that I'd feel much happier about doing so if I'd enjoyed reading it more, and been less eager to simply discover the secret at the book's heart.

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