Many an expedition has gone out into the Great Unknown seeking Adventure. And who knows? They may even have found it.
Many expeditions are lost entirely, or all of their members died. And since nobody came back, there's no telling how their adventure turned out, or what they found. So these real-life stories are crying out for a novelist to make them better, by adding zombies or strange forgoten realms to the mix. Here are 10 real-life journeys that would make terrific science fiction or fantasy books.
Top image: ~Yanimator on Deviant Art.
10. Henry Every
This list is full of tragedy and so it should start out with a person who ends up happy. Or should it? Henry Every was a notorious pirate, in the decidedly uncomedic and unromantic sense of the word. Inside one year of piracy, Every ruled the seas around The Cape of Good Hope, with a pirate fleet of as many as five boats. His biggest catch was the Gang-i-Sawai, part of the Grand Mogul of India's convoy. Every's ship fought for half a day, before the other vessel surrendered. Henry's crew then came aboard and did various horrible things to the passengers, including torturing them for information about where the loot stashes around the ship were. In the end, Every and his crew sailed away with 600,000 pounds worth of for-real, gold-and-silver treasure. They bribed governors and tried to barter for pardons, and a few were caught and hanged. In the end, despite a huge bounty put on their heads, Every and many of his crew disappeared. Some say they set up their own country somewhere. Some say they lived as fake aristocrats. Some say Every died, penniless, a year later. Whatever their actual fate, what we have is a sociopath with a lot of ill-gotten gold.
This could set the stage for a morality play, in which the Devil comes to get his due, or a dark, fantastical drama in which Every tries to bribe his way into heaven, or standard cursed gold fantasy fare.
9. Lawrence Oates
If you thought 'Keep Calm and Carry On,' was the best example of Brits stiffening their upper lips, you have never heard Lawrence Oates' last recorded words. He was part of Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated race to the South Pole. They found that Roald Amundsen's team made it there first, and on the way back encountered one difficulty after another. The team and their dogs died off one by one, until at last four men were in a tent, in a blizzard, with dwindling resources. Oates had weakened severely, and recognized that his weakened state was holding up the other men in their attempt to reach a supply station. They refused to leave him, so he decided to leave them.
Seeing the blizzard outside, he got up from his sleeping bag, didn't bother with his boots, since his feet were too frost-bitten to be able to put them on without pain, and walked out of the tent with the words, "I am just going outside, and may be some time." I will have a few choice words about the Scott expedition further down, but even I have to recognize that, if there were an award for dying nonchalantly, Oates would have won it twice. Once for the words he uttered when he left the tent, and once for the fact that his body was never found. No doubt he felt it would have been 'carrying on about it too much,' to have his body turn up months after the fact. Fantasy is too florid for this guy. He had to have walked into a crack in reality and disappeared into some other realm. He was suited for that. I think, no matter what weirdness the universe threw at him, he would have considered it 'a bother' to get riled up about it, and would have just cooled his way around spacetime, exploring things and being casually heroic.
8. Ninth Legion
The 4,000 men in the legion were raised near Pompeii to fight for Rome. The Ninth Legion was a well-disciplined and well-traveled group that went up from Pompeii, that fought across Europe, and that ended up in Scotland, where it disappeared in 109 AD. Although the Ninth Legion had been continuously in records from 65 BC, suddenly all mention of it vanished. This legion's story has been imagined many times, but usually, it's little more than the Picts wiping out most of the men while the last survivor finds love with a comely Scottish woman who displays remarkably little body hair during the love scenes.
This story cries out for an alien abduction, a time warp, a wormhole which leads to New Rome being established on an alien world, or any other type of crazy science fiction spin. I'd even take them being exposed to some early form of asteroid, mutating, going subterranean, and running an underground empire that lasts to this day. Just not another comely Scottish love story, please.
7. Roald Amundsen
I'm putting Roald Amundsen at seven and Lawrence Oates at nine because there just have to be some lists, somewhere, in which the guy who actually made it to the South Pole outranks the guys who didn't make it to the South Pole. Amundsen's team was the first to make it to the South Pole. He is constantly overshadowed by Scott's team because a tragic death often is more interesting than actual achievement. (I suspect that he's also overshadowed because if you're able to read this language, you share a cultural link to a nation that has an interest in Scott over Amundsen.)
But if you want a tragic story, try this one on for size. Amundsen made it back from the South Pole. He spent his life hearing complaints that it wasn't fair that he didn't let Scott know that he was racing him to the Pole (and you can bet that if he had let Scott know, 'the competition drove Scott to his death,' would have been the story of the day). In June of 1928, a team of different explorers went missing near the North Pole. Amundsen could have shrugged and gone back to his tea. Those guys were his competition, after all. Instead he grabbed a plane and flew off to find them and bring them back safely. He wasn't seen again. Since then, debris thought to be from his voyage has been found in the area. A map with a mark showing where the missing team was meant to have been. A single board. Nothing more. A novel should be written about Roald, maybe, flying off to somewhere where they could appreciate his achievement. Valhalla, maybe?
6. Felix Moncla and Robert Wilson
In 1953, Lieutenants Moncla and Wilson were sent off in a F-89-C Scorpion to chase after an unknown aircraft come down from the Canadian border. They were over Lake Michigan. Wilson was the radar operator, and tried to track the UFO, but was unable to. Radar operators at Truax Air Force Base near Madison, Wisconsin tried to guide the Scorpion to the flying object. The two dots on the radar screen merged, and both faded away. Other planes were dispatched, but no trace could be found of anything. The Air Force's statement was that Moncla got vertigo and crashed, and that the plane he was after was a Canadian Air Force plane. Canada denied that any plane of theirs was in the area. What really happened, whether it's in the sky or under Lake Michigan, is up to the novelist.
5. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Well, this one just flat-out writes itself. He's the author of The Little Prince, a story about an intergalactic traveler who mysteriously appears and disappears into the stars. The entire point of this book is that the world depends almost entirely on how you choose to look at it. And on July 31, 1944, the flying ace took off on a spy mission for the Allies and was never seen again. They claim to have found the wreckage of his plane, sixty years later, but even if that is the plane, they don't know why it went down, nor why there was no attempt at communication before it did. And of course there's no body. What happened? Look at the stars, figure out if they're bells or tears, and decide what you believe. Then write it down.
4. Glenn Miller
This, being one of the more modern disappearances, deserves a more modern, science fictional approach. Glenn Miller was a band leader and jazz musician. His most famous recordings, like In the Mood, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and Pennsylvania 6-5000, have been heard by people in every generation, if only in the trailers for movies of a certain time period. And that time period was drawing to a close at the end of World War II, when Glenn Miller was flying, along with a few other people, in a plane from England to the recently liberated France to entertain the troops. He never arrived in France.
There were many rumors. One was that Allied planes, unloading their bombs at a certain area accidentally caused so much air disruption that they crashed Miller's plane. Another tale claims he died in a French brothel and the military made it look like a mysterious plane crash to cover it up. Whatever it was, his plane was never found. This would be an excellent time-travel novel, with Miller kept in an era that needed him, brightening spirits, righting wrongs, and fighting Nazis. Alternately, he could flash around time to every era, seeing the differences in the way society worked over time, and bringing the best (or worst) of the wartime spirit to each time period he visited.
3. Sir John Franklin
In 1845 Europeans were still looking for ways around that pesky continent known as North America. Looking for The North West Passage, Sir John Franklin lead a crew of 128 men off through the Arctic. The first bodies were found in 1854. Over the next century and a half, other relics from the expedition were found, but the final indication of what happened to the crew wasn't discovered until the 1980s, when actual preserved bodies were found frozen in the ice. The largest intact find was a group of bodies beside a sled loaded with curtain rods, button polish, handkerchiefs, and a writing desk.
The most widely-held theory is that the lead that had been used to solder the cans of food on the expedition leached lead into the food supply. Lead poisoning causes hallucinations. That might explain the miscellany on the sled. Another theory holds that the distilled water supply they used had been contaminated by some hallucinogen. Either way, the men were not in their right mind when they loaded up a sled with button polish, and so they were seeing something. The intersection of madness, a harsh environment, and the fact that most of the wreckage and crew were never recovered could be turned into a humdinger of a fantasy novel. What if, in their delirium, they were seeing things that other people couldn't? What if they saw things that were manifestations of their personal truth, or their secret religious convictions? There are a dozen ways this novel could go.
2. Theodosia Burr Alston
Here's a great American mystery in which pirates and curses intersect, but not quite in the traditional way. Pirates may have kidnapped Theodosia, but she was the one to bring the curse. She was the daughter of Aaron Burr, the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. While being the Vice President. Dueling, by the way, was a crime in New York, the state both Hamilton and Burr were in at the time. Burr was charged, but fled the state, and eventually returned to Washington DC to finish his term as VP. Now that's the stuff that riles up a ghost. Theodosia was the apple of her father's eye, and by all accounts something of an intellectual prodigy, learning many languages by age twelve. She was married to James Alston, but still very much acted as her father's agent and in his interests.
In 1812 she boarded The Patriot, a steamer going from South Carolina to New York. The boat, and everyone on it, disappeared. The curse angle is set out quite clearly. The pirate angle? Well, the theory was that Theodosia became the mistress of a pirate captain (you know the loose morals of those intellectual prodigies), whose ship also disappeared into the blue. That's how amazing this story is. It has a person on a ship that disappears going on to board another ship . . . that also disappears. Actually, forget pirates and curses. This is some Inception-grade stuff.
1. Percy Fawcett
In 1925, Colonel Percy Fawcett, who had explored extensively in South America, went off into the Brazilian jungle to find The Lost City of Z. He didn't know exactly where it was, but he was sure, after studying old records and listening to legends, that it was in there somewhere. He was so sure that he took his son, Jack, along to help look for it. At the last outpost that maintained contact with the western world, he wrote a letter to his wife telling her they were moving into new territory. They didn't come back.
Over the ensuing decades, people have searched for the lost city, for Fawcett, and for both. Some claimed to have found them. There have been sightings of Fawcett, and some of his possessions were recovered from several different local tribes, which fueled rumors that he had been killed by them or had gotten amnesia and joined them. In 1996 an expedition went out to find Fawcett's remains, only to encounter a group of locals who weren't interested in people exploring near them. The expedition was held for weeks until they were let go, minus tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. One archaeologist, Michael Heckenberger, claimed to have found the remains of the city. Three other scientists, using Google Earth, claimed that they found the city somewhere else. A reporter, David Grann, travelled into Brazil and found a person who claimed to be the last person to see Fawcett. The person told him a simple tale about Fawcett: He went over the hill and never came back. Can you think of a better first line for a novel?
Oates Image: National Library of New Zealand
Amundsen Image: NOAA
Miller Image: Sweetlyrics.com
Burr-Alston Image: Yale Library
Fawcett Image: Wiki Commons