Explorers of the New Century
by Magnus Mills
My eagerly anticipated copy of Explorers of the New Century finally arrived from Amazon.co.uk. It will be released the U.S. in the spring of 2006, but if you’re a fan of Mills as I am, that’s too long of a wait.
The book was as good as I hoped it would be, right up there with his best works, such as The Restraint of Beasts and Three to See the King. It has many of the same general characteristics as his previous works with a comically fetishistic observance of the mundane.
The tale is set in some unnamed region—barren and vaguely polar—where teams led by Johns and Totsig are following different parallel routes toward the “Agreed Furthest Point”. Each commands a group of men known only by their last names—along with a complement of mules. Johns’ team is full of pluck and spirit, but always threatening to descend into chaos; Totsig’s smaller team is a model of efficiency and discipline, any indiscretions confronted with a martial strictness. (There’s a loose parallel here to the Scott and Amundsen expeditions to the South Pole.)
In the tradition of an earlier era when scientific and social purpose, not ego, were supposed to be motivations, the leaders go to some length to disclaim any idea that they are in race, though it becomes increasingly obvious that this is not the case. As the journey unfolds, hints are made to a darker purpose behind the trip—such as sketchy references to principles of “Transportation Theory”.
Mills really seems to be playing with the form. First is the very artifact of the book itself; the hardback U.K. version comes with an ironic, sewn-in ribbon bookmark—a play on the fact that this is ostensibly an account of turn-of-the-century iron-men, but is in fact a comic misadventure packaged in a thin volume that can easily be read in a night.
Then there was this exchange between members of the Johns’ team, one of whom had just mentioned his desire for “scones”:
[Plover] waited 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. We’ve always said “scones” where I come from.’
‘Same here,’ agreed Seddon.‘I assure you the word is “scones”,’ said Plover. ‘You should look it up when you have the opportunity.’
The absurdity of these written words are funny on their own, but as a comic device it has the added effect of breaking the reader out of the insular world he has created and somehow bringing it into greater relief.