Michael Palin’s chief fame comes from his being a performer and lead writer for the comedy group Monty Python. Since then, he’s served as the president of the Royal Geographical Society and has produced travel documentaries such as Pole to Pole.
In Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, Palin chronicles the work of the HMS Erebus and her sister ship the HMS Terror as they explore the “Southern Ocean” and encounter the forbidding continent of Antarctica.
The Erebus and the Terror head down to Antarctica no less than two times, stopping back in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New Zealand to renew supplies. One of their first sights was of a wholly unexpected active volcano, which they named after their ship—Mount Erebus. To quote from one of the logs, “It would Shew first with a volume of Smoke, as dark as Pitch which would gradually become of a lighter hue and then the Flame would burst forth with great fury for some time.” Then there was the eerie wall of ice two hundred feet high, that seemed to have no end. “McCormick clambered up to the crow’s nest, ‘but could see no termination to the great ice-wall, which we have named the Great Southern Barrier.’” That was just the edge of what is now called the Ross Ice Shelf, named after James Clark Ross, captain of the Erebus.
At one point, both of these wooden sailing ships were completely locked in by ice. They made the best of it by going out onto the ice and performing plays to maintain morale! It is hard to believe these ships survived the ice, the waves, the lightning, and other perils.
Later, the Erebus sailed north in an ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Palin has less to recount here, since he has to piece together what happened from scraps of information.
So some application for science fiction writers (if you’re not one, ignore this paragraph): If you’re writing about ships in space, you can profit greatly from reading this sort of non-fiction—especially of older ships. There are gripping scenes of near disaster from forces far mightier than these ships. The feel of awe from encountering a volcano or the wall of ice are essential for good adventure fiction. On long voyages, something like a hologram deck or live plays would be a must for crew morale. And of course, there is the friction among officers as to who will be chosen for the glorious attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
All in all, Erebus is a beautiful book. Palin does the Royal Geographical Society proud.