Developing an interest in the Franklin Expedition has opened my eyes to whole genres and sub-genres of literature I didn’t even know existed. One of the most fascinating of these, and certainly the most entertaining, has been the emerging sub-genre of romance specifically about members of the Franklin Expedition. 

Real-person fiction (RPF) has existed in public knowledge since at least the late medieval and early modern eras, if not earlier. In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote about meeting many well-known classical and contemporary figures in The Divine Comedy. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, William Shakespeare, too, wrote a great deal about real people, mainly members of the royal family. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that RPF really began to expand and gain traction. This occurred alongside the increasing popularity of traditional fictional-character fanfiction and the development of what we know today as modern fan culture. This is something we have fans of the original Star Trek series, many of whom were housewives and stay-at-home mothers, to thank for (LLAP, ladies <3). 

Skipping ahead to the 1980s, the Franklin Expedition, which had been a subject of interest for some time in the UK and Canada, became more widely known when forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie excavated the Franklin-era Beechey Island graves of John Hartnell, John Torrington, and William Braine and found their bodies incredibly well-preserved. He completed the autopsies begun shortly after their deaths in 1846 by Harry Goodsir (mentioning him now as he’ll be important later...), the assistant surgeon on the HMS Erebus, the lead ship of the Franklin Expedition. With modern scientific knowledge, Beattie was able to determine that many of Franklin’s men likely died of overexposure to lead from their food, which was contaminated in production and worsened over time, and from various vitamin and heavy metal deficiencies due to their inadequate diet, things which would not have been understood at the time of their demise. 

Beattie's account of the gravesite excavation and the autopsies he performed were also incredibly detailed and lovingly described in his book Frozen in Time (first published in 1987 and reissued several times since then). Beattie’s descriptions of the Beechey Island “ice mummies,” as they are now widely known, and particularly the body of 19-year-old stoker John Torrington, went on to inspire Margaret Atwood to write her short story “The Age of Lead,” about a woman who had been in love with a man who died of a mysterious illness and now finds herself reliving her time with him while watching Beattie excavate Torrington’s grave on a TV documentary. 

Atwood’s short story might not technically be RPF, but it was a masterful opening to what would become a long line of romantic and borderline-romantic fiction about the Franklin Expedition, the most well-known of which is probably Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel The Terror. This book largely focuses on Captain Francis Crozier, the captain of the HMS Terror, the expedition’s second ship. After the death of Sir John Franklin, Simmons’s Crozier is tasked with leading the expedition and leading his men through the Arctic all while battling not only the elements and their own failing wits, but a bearlike creature called the Tuunbaq, which has been killing men off one by one. 

In 2018, AMC released a limited series of ten episodes inspired by Simmons’s book. The series is certainly more palatable than the book was, and (in my opinion) much better. The showrunners made the characters more likable, while still making their prejudices and biases abundantly clear, and they were given greater emotional depth, something which Simmons is not very good at doing as an author. 

The AMC series introduced the world of The Terror and the history of the Franklin Expedition to a wider audience, and its rich characterization of key players created a strong jumping-off point for RPF and plain old fictional-character fanfiction authors alike (I would argue that both are applicable to varying degrees as many of these fan works exist in a weird gray zone between being based on the fictionalized version of the character as presented in both versions of The Terror and based on historical research into the lives of the actual men). There is a strong Terror fandom, for instance, on Tumblr, and as of the morning of May 30, when I am writing this post, there are 6,807 works based on the AMC series on the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own (AO3). 

There are also two romance novels about members of the Franklin Expedition which were inspired by AMC’s The Terror, and I suspect—or rather, I hope—there are more to come. 

These books are unique from one another. They are about two different characters and set in two very different universes. But they also share a few similarities, including the existence of time travel, bringing one singular guy from the expedition to the 2020s and leaving the rest to die as they historically did, and these guys somehow not dying of some modern illness they’ve never been exposed to or infecting someone else with some formerly eradicated 19th century illness upon arrival. 

The first piece of Terror-fanfiction-cum-RPF-romance to be published following the release of AMC’s The Terror was Jennifer Reinfried’s In Eternity. This book centers around a former rock guitarist with a master’s degree in history named Annie Ross (seemingly named after the wife of Sir James Ross, a Royal Navy officer who led a rescue mission to find Franklin’s men, only to discover they had all died before his arrival) whose world has been destroyed by demonic wraiths that destroy everything in their path, and which have seemingly killed every other living thing—plant, animal, person, and even bacterium—on the planet. 

Annie and her friends survive the apocalypse by hiding in an underground government bunker where her friends’ mother used to work, and there they find a room filled with books on the Franklin Expedition, including a diary written by assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir, and a time machine. Annie becomes convinced that Harry has supernatural powers and that he may be able to help them save the world, so she talks her friends into going back to 1848 to rescue him and bring him to 2020. 

Reinfried’s book is clearly derivative of The Terror, following many of the same plot lines but with a few different characters (She can’t copy absolutely everything! There is a big reveal at the end of The Terror, which definitely would have counted as plagiarism if she’d copied it, even if she got away with copying nearly everything else). Her Goodsir is also obviously based on the character as played by British actor Paul Ready in both characterization and appearance, with a Scottish accent tacked on because the historical Goodsir was Scottish, despite his portrayal as an upper-middle class Englishman in The Terror. 

In Eternity was a somewhat annoying read because of how blatantly it was based on The Terror. Not only that, so much of the plot didn’t make sense, the sci-fi was disappointingly sci-less, the main character’s lack of knowledge of history and music were frustrating to me as someone who knows both history and music well, and the villain was unfortunately kind of laughable. This book could have been an AO3 fanfiction. Nevertheless, I did finish reading it rather quickly, and if Reinfried ever publishes the rest of the series, I will probably read the other books as well. 

Earlier this month, a second Franklin Expedition- and Terror-inspired sci-fi romance novel was published, titled The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley. This book, unlike Reinfried’s self-published In Eternity, was published by a well-known publishing house, Avid Reader Press, which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster. 

Bradley’s book is written in a way that reads almost like an anonymous confession or a tell-all memoir about a corrupt government agency by one of its former lower-level officials. Known only as “the bridge,” and identified as a former government translator of Cambodian descent, the narrator of this novel is assigned by her superiors to help assimilate a 19th century man to our modern world. That man is Graham Gore, First Lieutenant of the HMS Erebus, who was rescued shortly before his death in 1847. 

And, of course, things get, uhh, interesting, rather quickly between Gore and the bridge. She notes on their first meeting that they are instantly attracted to one another, which she seems to recognize as inappropriate. Nevertheless, she proceeds with the job, and proceeds to engage in a number of inappropriate or unapproved behaviors with him, including smoking, drinking, recreational drug use, and, yes, eventually sex, all while painting a very clear picture of an unsavory power imbalance between the two of them as she is the holder of the information he needs in order to succeed in assimilating into modern society, and she has been tasked with protecting and teaching him what behaviors are acceptable. However, I would argue that this was all deliberately done by Bradley as the book is also an ambitious commentary on imperialism. 

Though Bradley's goals aren’t always met as effectively as they could be, what she presented was deeply engaging and thought-provoking, and I’m hoping that the BBC television adaptation of the book, which has already been announced, will be able to realize her goals in the same way the AMC adaptation of The Terror helped to clarify and refocus Dan Simmons’s story. 

I also hope, as I have already said, that this is just the beginning of what will be a whole new subgenre of romance, historical and science fiction, and modern literature as a whole because these books are so fascinating to me. I could probably read 129 Franklin Expedition RPF sci-fi romance novels and never get tired of them.