Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fresh Mountain Air

The Abominable
by Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Company

3 out of 5 miracle ropes didn't snap.

This book certainly isn’t abominable, but it doesn’t exactly soar to the height of the peak of Mount Everest either.

In 1925 young Jake Perry is an American mountain climber who has been knocking around the Alps with his new friends, Richard Davis Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux. Deacon is a veteran English climber who had been on a previous expedition to scale Mount Everest. After the men hear about the deaths of several people attempting to summit Everest, Deacon comes up with a plan to get funding for another Everest expedition by telling the mother of a young English lord that they will try to find and recover his remains

With Deacon’s experience and several new climbing innovations, the three men hope to become the first  to climb Everest, but the addition of a new member to their party is just one of many surprises they’ll get as they try overcome all the obstacles that come with a high altitude climb.

Dan Simmons threw me for a bit of a loop by starting with an introduction in which he describes how he met Jake Perry as an old dying man who inadvertently inspires his Arctic horror storyThe Terror. This is supposedly an account that Perry wrote that Simmons received after his death and arranged to have a published. The inclusion of Simmons into his own story made me think for a minute that Perry was real until a bit of research showed that Simmons was doing his historical fiction thing again like The TerrorBlack Hills  and The Crook Factory.

If you’ve read any of those books and you know that a big chunk of this is about trying to climb Mt. Everest in the ‘20s then you might guess that there’s going to be a massive amount of detail about mountain climbing techniques and equipment from that era. And you’d be absolutely right!

Some people would probably be bored to tears by this, but most who have read any of those other books by Simmons probably had a pretty good idea that there would be long explanations of the terrain, food, clothing, equipment, etc. etc. The question for many readers will be is if the detail helps sell the experience of the book or if they think that it just turns into Simmons showing off his research skills.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the infodumps. I’m a Simmons veteran so I knew what I was getting into, and I knew that I’d be getting an education in mountain climbing by reading this. It was that not only did Simmons give you that much detail, he’s awfully damn repetitive about it. For example, Simmons writes that Deacon has come up with a new kind of rope and exactly how it’s breaking strength is superior to the other ropes of the time. OK, so they’ve got better rope. Easy enough to understand. Yet Simmons feels the need to repeatedly remind us every time a hunk of rope is used that the Deacon’s ‘miracle rope’ is much better the old ‘clothes line’ rope. I got it after the first 20 times, Dan Simmons. You didn’t need to keep telling me.

And it isn’t just the rope. Perry’s team has acute future vision because they manage to use groundbreaking new ice climbing methods as well as improved equipment in every phase of their expedition. Even their tents and clothing are such a quantum leap above the gear of the day that I was wondering why they bothered trying to climb Mount Everest when they could have just founded North Face and made a fortune instead.

Maybe this wouldn’t have been quite such an irritation to me if the main part of the story would have kicked in a little earlier and been a bit more believable. I was invested in finding out if they were going to be able to summit Everest when Phase Two begins late in the book, and everything goes in another direction.  WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS:
 There’s a lot of teasing all the yeti stuff, and since this is a book by the guy who wrote The Terror it certainly seemed like some abominable snowmen would be making an appearance so it turning out to be Nazis seems to come out of left field despite the earlier scenes in Germany.

Also, after so much detail about how exhausting it is to be in the death zone, the plot of being chased by Nazis up the mountain seems completely unrealistic. Plus, the idea that all of this was because of pictures showing that Adolf Hitler was a pedophile doesn’t really work for me either. If the British really had blackmail material like that, wouldn’t they have used it to derail Hitler’s career earlier when he was becoming a threat or avert the war when he started invading other countries? I just don’t buy that they’d wait to play that card until England was about to be invaded rather than much earlier.

Still, for all the excess detail and slow pace, I did very much enjoy some aspects of this. Simmons is a writer who can really make you feel what it’d be like to climb the highest mountain on the world, and he provides some very gory details to make you appreciate the peril. I had never thought about what would happen to human bodies that go tumbling down mountain faces, and now I have those mental pictures in my head thanks to this book. So that’s another one I owe Dan Simmons…

Also posted at Goodreads.

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