Monday, March 24, 2014

I find your lack of Yeti disturbing...

With a name like The Abominable and most of the book taking place on Mount Everest, I was really expecting more Himalayan snow demons in Dan Simmons' newish book.

Lord knows I'm been joking around about this lack of furry murder monsters on the peak on Facebook for most of the duration of my read, but honestly, the book is well written enough that the severe lack of hairy killer beasts isn't actually much of an issue.

We start our very long journey up the slopes of Everest in 1992, when the author goes to Colorado to meet Jake Perry, an elderly man with cancer, who was on the 1935 Antarctic expedition with Admiral Byrd. (Jake, it seems, managed to annoy Byrd enough that he got to winter in the Penguin Observation hut on Cape Royals, watching penguins that had already headed out to warmer climes.) Simmons mentions some of the stuff that he'd written about previously in The Terror, leading the reader to assume that Jake also inspired that interesting history of the search for the Northwest Passage.

Jake ends the conversation (which somehow revolved around an Antarctic expedition being menaced by giant mutant killer penguins and not Yetis) by asking Simmons to read his story of Everest in 1925, following the previous year's failed expedition by Mallory and Irvine. Simmons agrees to read it to make the old man happy. The old man dies, but it takes Simmons about 20 years to get the manuscript due to familial inheritance and someone not directly forwarding it on after Jake's death. Which, after reading, Simmons decides to publish.

We meet a much younger Jake, sitting on the summit of the Matterhorn with his Alpine climbing buddies, Richard Davis Deacon (an English Peer who really never uses his title) and Jean-Claude Chamonix (of the French Chamonix alpine guides). It's June of 1924, and news of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance on the way back down Everest is front page news. There's also odd news of the unrelated vanishing of one Lord Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer, witnessed only by German climber Bruno Sigl and his party of German climbers around the Second Step of the North Face of Everest.

Deacon, while smoking a pipe at the high altitude of the Italian/Swiss border (also unsurprisingly yeti free), asks the gentlemen if they'd like to climb Everest the next Spring. Unsurprisingly, both Jean-Claude and Jake agree.

Which sets up the ostensible reason for the 1925 Deacon-Bromley expedition. Lady Bromley, Percival's mother, remains convinced that her son is alive on the mountain, and employs Deacon and party to go find him and bring him home. Or, if they find him dead, do their best to recover the body and bring it home to England. They are to go to the Bromley family's tea plantation in Darjeeling and meet Percy's cousin Reggie, who will guide them to Everest and help arrange the actual climb.

With that narrative hook, the trio begin researching Percy's death and begin the fun of getting equipment for an Everest expedition. As unrelated at this entire section seems to be, it does manage to give us much information on mountain climbing techniques and equipment, and give us tantalizing clues about the Yeti. We also meet Bruno Sigl in Munich (where Jean-Claude refuses to go, having lost family to the Germans during the Great War) at the Bürger Bräu Keller, the Beer Hall where Sigl's political hero had recently been arrested during a failed attempt at government overthrow. Sigl's devotion to National Socialism is very disturbing to me, but then I live nearly a century after seeing what his glorious der fuhrer actually did to the world after taking power.

Anyway, with new, better climbing ropes and new 12 point crampons, as well as lighter and better designed oxygen tanks, the trio rater quietly make their way to Darjeeling to meet Percy's cousin Reggie. Now, in what's a surprise for them, but not for us, since it's revealed on the dust jacket, Reggie is female and has ever intention of trying to summit Everest along with Deacon and crew. As well as recover Percy's body, where ever it may be. She has previously been to Everest searching with her doctor and friend Pashang. Reggie also has all the papers to get them through to Tibet, since the Dalai Lama at the time has closed off expeditions following Irvine and Mallory's failure. The official reason has to do with the amount of litter on the mountain, including bodies, oxygen tanks, etc, but according to Reggie, has more to do with a British supervisor who pressured the Dalai Lama into cutting off the route. (Evidently, Nepal was closed to foreigners during this period, making the North route the only one available.)

This begins the middle third of the novel, wherein we learn the intricacies of the siege of Everest, with advance teams going up head and laying paths for porters to come up with the heavier gear. The setting up of camps on various ridges, each given a number after the Base camp. (Pretty sure most modern folks use the south route from Nepal and use 4 camps. The route taken here has at least 7 camps and a bunch of glacier walking.) We meet the bandits, lead by James Kahn, as well as the monks of the Rongbuk monastery. We lost a sherpa along the way and witness an air burial (which I was only familiar with thanks to Gaimen and his Sandman series.)(One side note here. They mention the provisions taken by Mallory and Irvine up the mountain to eat at high altitude. I find the idea of dragging Fois Gras up a few miles of vertical rock amusing.)

Which sets up the third section, which start with meeting the sherpas at Camp IV, having climbed up from base camp, convinced that the yeti had killed all of their friends.

It's a fascinating and thoroughly researched book. Simmons, despite his occasional prejudices, is a master at descriptive language, making it easy to visualize such things as an oxygen tank falling around 2 miles from the North Col onto the glacier below, or the mummified remains of climbers found along the way. Or the very graphic depiction of the air burial, which is a lot more involved than At World's End let on. The breathtaking chase up the mountain in the last part of the book had me gasping for air along with the characters, even as the previous section with the climbs up and down the mountain had me feeling like I was watching Benji or Chariots of Fire, wherein I felt as though I was climbing right along with them.

By far the biggest thing was the reveal of what The Abominable actually is. Much like our narrator, I was kind of disappointed by that big reveal, but in the wrap up, I think I better understand what the point was. And part of me was very touched final result of the expedition.

As another reviewer said when I was looking for a good synopsis to figure out if I wanted to read this, (To be honest, the last Simmons I read was the Illium/Olympos duology, which while fascinating and very good, suffered from a touch of Simmons anti-Islamic leaning. It's odd, Simmons seems to be fairly right wing Libertarian in most of his views, but on that, he seems to not be as open.) The supernatural in The Abominable is a bit like seasoning in a very rich stew. It isn't the focus of the meal, but rather helps bring out the other flavors in the broth. Even if there weren't wall to wall yeti stretching from Wales to Tibet, the book is well worth the read. Just keep Wikipedia or Google open nearby to look up some of the references, since it occasionally takes a while for one of the characters to explain something.