My notes and thoughts on The Abominable by Dan Simmons, read in August 2014.
At its core, the book is about world-class British and American climbers who go on a recovery mission to Mt. Everest in the early 1920s. The objective of their recovery mission is to obtain copies of incriminating, lewd photographs of Adolf Hitler in order to push him out of power. These photographs are so important that German sympathizers, also world class climbers (of course) are sent to recover the photographs as well. The catch here is that the photographs themselves are on the corpses of two climbers who unsuccessfully ascended Everest in an attempt to evade the Germans a year prior to the current story line. The vast majority of the story is told by the sole American climber, who recounts it from his retirement home shortly before his death.
The novel itself is historical fiction, and done very thoroughly. So thoroughly, in fact, that I had to check on some names given in the prologue to distinguish if they were fact or fiction. Spoiler alert! Dan Simmons is a fiction writer and this novel is no exception. Even knowing this ahead of time I had to reorient myself after starting the book because the author weaves himself into the story in such a believable way. The premise is that the protagonist - Jake Perry, the American climber - requests to meet with Simmons in order to tell him his extraordinary story in hopes of publication. Dying of cancer in his nursing home, Jake promises to write down the narrative for Simmons. The following book is supposed to then be told from Jakes’s voice, transcribed by Simmons from his notebooks after Jake’s death.
This approach to historical fiction really gives the story believability right from the get-go. I have never seen a book go quite this far with its setup before. Having read works by Jeff Shaara and Simon Scarrows, I was expecting something similar. Simmons’ commitment to immersing the reader in the story was both surprising and refreshing.
At 680 pages the book is quite long. Lots of words are spent describing the various climbing equipment used in the 20s - hobnailed boots, canvas A-frame tents, and newly-invented down jackets all make an appearance. The jumar - a tension-based climbing aide - is described as well, having been invented by one of the characters. While all these implements were interesting, they collectively took my attention away from the core of the plot too often. I feel like the book would lose very little by trimming such narratives. The book could easily drop about 150 pages or so without any loss of impact, in my opinion.
Simmons has done considerable research into what happens at high altitudes, but then seemingly discards it all in favor of pushing the plot forward. He spends some time describing the pressure altitude places on our bodies and how weak it makes us, but then we see people lifting others from rappels at 27,000 feet. Such feats are most likely impossible today, and much less so with the comparatively primitive tools of the 1920s. The offenses aren’t bad per se, because they are obviously there to keep the plot exciting. Since I want to read extraordinary and exciting things when I read fiction, I hand-waved these things away without issue.
I appreciated the treatment and mentions of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine. The characters find the former’s corpse during their ascent (a full 74 years before it was actually found by Conrad Anker) and note the condition of the body accurately. They also spot Irvine’s corpse on the mountain, leaving an ice axe to point people in the direction of where the body is located. Although Irvine’s ice axe was actually found, his body remains missing somewhere on the mountain.
Overall I recommend the book to fans of mountain climbing. It was certainly entertaining and only a little long-winded. Just be aware that Simmons will pull you in!