Explorers of the New Century – Magnus Mills (2005) 184 pages
I remember really enjoying Magnus Mills’ debut novel The Restraint of Beasts when it was published to great acclaim at the end of the 1990s. I know I read some of his work after that, but then lost track. Explorers of the New Century reminded me of what I had enjoyed so much previously: the dry deadpan humour, the unnerving slightly surreal setting, the feeling that anything could happen, among a group of men brought together by work.
Much in Explorers of the New Century is left unexplained. As we follow two expeditions attempting to reach the “Agreed Furthest Point” first, we have no idea when or where this is. It is very reminiscent of the Antarctic explorations in the early 20th century; one group have resolutely English-sounding names, led by Johns who speaks in the most English of ways:
“Now it’s far too cold to stand here making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think will make an immediate start.”
The other group have names that sound more Scandinavian, led by a man called Tostig. Mills is drawing on our knowledge of Scott and Amundsen but there’s nothing to suggest that this is alternative history, or taking place in any known geographical location.
“The sun was already part way through its slow crawl along the southern horizon. It appeared as a dull red orb offering little in the way of warmth, and providing light for only a few short hours.”
Initially the descriptions of the two expeditions seem fairly familiar, despite an unnerving, unknowable quality that Mills is so good at. The setting up of camp, the annoyances and friendly gestures shared by the men, the rationing and struggles with the terrain, are all reminiscent of imperialist exploration narratives.
“Johns is a true man of enterprise, but like other great explorers he is also fragrantly self-seeking. In his case, I’m afraid ambition has achieved the upper hand.”
However, just over halfway through the story features a significant twist, bringing the darkness of colonialism to the fore. This twist means I can’t say much more about the novella, but I greatly enjoyed reacquainting myself with Mills’ unique vision. Although Explorers of the New Century is a bleak tale, there is a lot of dry humour too.
“Suddenly Medleycott sat up and peered through the slit of the tent flaps.
‘It’s pitch blackout there now,’ he announced. ‘Yet what sights we’ve beheld since our journey began! Think of them! The leaden moon floating on a shimmering sea! Sunrise and sunset rolled together into one fiery hue! The burnished skies! The majestic beams spreading over the dip of the hill! Don’t they make a wonderful spectacle?’
‘Can’t say I’ve ever noticed,’ replied Sargent.”
Mills never allows the humour to let his characters off the hook though. Explorers of the New Century could be read as a fable, and like a fable it has a strong moral core. It isn’t heavy-handed in the telling, but remains challengingly elusive.