The Fictioning

Saturday, April 8th, 2006


Explorers of the New Century: A Novel

by Magnus Mills

An Ode to Orwell

A review by Georgie Lewis

Magnus Mill's novel, Explorers of the New Century, begins as an apparent satire on the sort of expeditions undertaken by Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, or Australia's Burke and Wills. As there are two competing parties many reviewers have also pointed out the similarities to Scott and Amundsen's race to the South Pole.

The two parties, one apparently Scandinavian to tell from their names, the other resolutely British, have set course to get to the Agreed Furthest Point, or AFP. The terrain is harsh -- Tostig's party follows the dry river bed and the British party, led by Johns, takes the alternative route over miles of jagged rock. The weather only gets worse, the visibility wretched due to only minutes of daylight per day combined with gale force winds and dust storms. In addition to terms like AFP, the landscape is enigmatically unfamiliar. There are also references to a Transportation Theory -- a theory that is contested from time to time by some of the squabbling explorers. Although the title talks of a New Century, it is unclear in which century the novel is set; they travel with mules and appear to have simple provisions that remind us of the early twentieth century, yet there are also letters and pamphlets that reveal this is a time of peace and prosperity. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that Mills is actually teasing out a parable here, and there are just enough clues for the reader to know this is no ordinary trek.

Although the book is far more deadpan, I was reminded of Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns, especially "Across the Andes by Frog." You get a similar circuitous dialogue and attention to some absurd detail. For example:

He waited for a moment and then said, 'I think you'll find that the correct pronunciation is "scones."'

'"Scones?"' repeated Sargent.

'"Scones,"' repeated Plover.

'Well, I've never heard that before. We've always said "scones" from where I come from.' 'Same here,' agreed Seddon.

'I assure you the word is "scones",' said Plover. You should look it up when you get the opportunity.'

'Yes, I will,' rejoined Sargent. 'When I get the opportunity.'

The opportunity might be a while coming...

And although their names are distinctly Nordic sounding -- along with Tostig we get Guthrum, Thegn, Thorsson and Snaebjorn -- the competing party sounds just as stuffy... and hilariously ruthless:

'Thegn, I'm looking for a volunteer,' said Tostig. 'I need someone to take a line and try and find a way across this maelstrom. It won't be easy; the task requires both daring and judgment; one slip could mean certain death. I thought I'd give you first refusal.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'Obviously, Snaebjorn would do it at the drop of a hat, but the truth is he's far too valuable to the expedition. We simply can't afford to risk losing him, so if I could send you instead it would be a great help.'

Now, while there are the aforementioned disorientating elements, generally three-quarters of this slim book is an entertaining spoof on exploring. Stunningly at page 114 an event occurs that reveals a detail which causes everything leading up to that moment to be reframed. It is to Mill's credit as a satirist and a teller of fables that this event is so subtle.

What we have here is a black comedy in the tradition of Beckett (one of the authors Mills is often compared to). Mills is moral without moralizing; he's provocative without preaching. There have been some spoiler reviews of this novel and I am not about to join them here. However, I can say that like Animal Farm and 1984 in their day, Explorers of the New Century is timely, a striking critique of today's culture and politics.

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