The Abominable

November 15, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

The AbominableThe Abominable by Dan Simmons


I’m somewhat amused by the fact that I read this book while also reading Bentley Little’s body of work. Little’s books are all named using the article-noun convention, usually in reference to something plain and innocuous, making them about as evocative as a brown suit. Anyone who’s read Little before knows that his stories will be anything but plain, but new readers wouldn’t get that sense from the titles.

The Abominable follows that same naming convention, but one could hardly call the name innocuous; the title is portentous, and if nothing else, it gives us a pretty good idea of what we’ll find inside. Based on the title alone, readers could expect to find mountains, snow, and possibly something supernatural. The book is about an attempt to be the first to reach the top of Mount Everest, and while there’s mention of yeti here and there (oh, those superstitious Sherpa!), the title could be about them, or it could be about the mountain. As Simmons shows us time and again, scaling Everest is one narrow escape from death after another, as the conditions up there are constantly trying to kill you.

Because if there’s one thing Simmons likes, it’s research; if there’s anything Simmons likes more than research, it’s showing his readers how much research he did. I think The Abominable is to mountain-climbing as Moby Dick is to sailing. At least half of the book is a series of info-dumps conveyed from one character to another (some in an unrealistic fashion) about Mount Everest, mountain climbing, equipment used in said climbing, or how once you cross 26,000 feet, your body is slowly dying. Simmons wants to make sure we get that last point, too; he tells us so at least three separate times. Peppered throughout all that preparation are hints of what the plot will be, and scenes that remind us Simmons still knows how to tell a gripping story, but it really doesn’t get going until about page 300.

Once it does get going, the reader is in for a treat, as they are with most of Simmons’ work. All that research lends a credibility to his writing, which is complemented nicely with his characterization and pacing skills. Even though the info-dumps and exposition lead to a lengthy, somewhat uninteresting first half of the book, it’s hard to say how well the story would work without all that backstory. I think the story is worth persevering through all that introductory material, but I’m not sure I would consider this one of Simmons’ best works; I would recommend new readers start elsewhere in his catalog.

I’m not wild about the framing device Simmons uses for this story. Ostensibly, it’s a found manuscript story, and Simmons writes a version of himself into the foreword and afterword of the book, telling us how he “discovered” this work. I didn’t understand the point of it, since he could have easily used the same framing device using a different character to convey the story. Plus, the story is intended to be a recollection of events that occurred some seventy years before. I always have trouble with those kinds of stories, since I’m not convinced that someone would have such vivid recall of conversations and events so long after taking place, and here, we have the narrator recalling someone else recalling perfectly another conversation. In at least one case, he recalls perfectly, seventy years later, what another person said to him in French, which he didn’t even understand at the time. I have a hard time remembering details of events from just last week, so it’s hard for me to believe in that kind of complete recall.

He also tells the story in the present tense, which is odd, since it’s supposed to be written so long after the events. He addresses that point as he enters the third act, but it’s not all that convincing to me. Plus, in that story, the narrator references things that happen in the future, even as he’s telling the events in the present tense. It seems like a poor choice, especially when the narrator coyly references future events without the prescience of someone telling the story from the future. I mean, at one point in the story, we know he’s talking about Hitler, but he refuses to say that specifically until someone else clarifies that for him. It just didn’t work for me.

All that being said, Simmons captures the perseverance and dedication of the climbers, and the realities of attempting something so physically daunting and seemingly impossible. He shows the humanity of his characters contrasted with the heartlessness that’s necessary to complete the climb. The story inspired me to do some of my own research, and I stumbled across an article about a climber who, near the summit, was exposed, immobile, but still alive, and left by over 40 other climbers who passed him on their way down from the summit. He eventually died, and the article raised the question of whether or not anyone should have done anything for the climber. Rescue missions on Everest are frequently fatal, and people can only spend about 48 hours in the Death Zone anyway before perishing; spending time trying to help a climber who may have already given up can mean leaving two bodies on Everest instead of one. It’s chilling, but it’s also the reality of the situation. I would imagine that most climbers are aware of the risks, and accepting of their deaths in those situations.

The book got me thinking, and I enjoyed the ride, despite some minor concerns over how Simmons structured the story. Already-fans should definitely read it.

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