The Abominable by Dan Simmons is one of those books where my enjoyment of it doesn’t match how well I esteem the author. Given the caliber of much of Mr. Simmons other work, I suspect this may be a better book than I give it credit for.
It’s just not one I enjoy all that much.
The Abominable is one of Mr. Simmons’ entries in his historical thriller novels (the others being Drood and The Terror, neither of which I’ve read yet). In this book, a group of mountaineers attempts an Alpine-style climb of Mt. Everest in 1925, one year after George Mallory’s final, fatal attempt. There’s also a missing British lord, Tibetan monks, Nazis, and international intrigue.
Despite being a historical thriller, I think this novel would appeal most to fans of mountaineering memoirs like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The book is mostly a detailed account of the techniques, strategy, and equipment used to climb Mt. Everest. No matter what—you’d better be interested in involved descriptions of the mechanics of mountain climbing if you’re planning to read this book.
So this novel works well as a book about mountaineering. It doesn’t work so well as a novel.
Everything about this book sets it up to be a supernatural thriller. But it’s not. Not only because the threat turns out not be supernatural (which is actually no great loss) but because it takes forever for the threat to even show up. It takes too long, in fact, and I found myself getting bored and antsy waiting for something to happen.
I also dislike the core conceit of the novel. There’s an author’s introduction and afterword in which Mr. Simmons sets up a fairly standard “found manuscript” premise which I find entirely unnecessary. I understand what he meant to do with it but it’s clunky and it adds nothing—the story could exist exactly as it is without this premise. Indeed, if anything, this premise reduces the overall tension because you know from the outset that the narrator survives.
There’s a basic challenge for any author who writes historical fiction: On the one hand, you want to show the reader enough interesting people and events from the time period to excite them and transport them to that world. But on the other, you can’t throw in so many significant things that it becomes unbelievable. For the main character to encounter too many famous people and participate in too many important events makes it difficult for the reader to maintain credulity.
Too much of The Abominable is incredulous. The main character meets too many historically significant people, is present at too many historically significant places, etc. It’s too much for me to easily accept it.
Moreover, the mechanics of the mountaineering—while detailed and well-researched—are based on anachronisms which require the reader to ignore too much of the established history of mountain climbing. Most egregiously, the characters invent technology that won’t exist for another couple of decades. But the story is set up in such a way that several aspects of the plot wouldn’t be possible without these anachronisms.
For a historical fiction novel to depend to such a degree on explicitly ahistorical elements suggests that the underlying concept is fundamentally flawed (unless we’re dealing with alternate history SF, which this book most certainly is not).
Throughout this novel, I’m reminded of a writing teacher I once knew, whose favorite criticism was to tell people, “Your research is showing.” An author of historical fiction must do enough detailed research to accurately render the world. However, that research should support the story unobtrusively, organically.
Clearly, Mr. Simmons undertook a voluminous amount of research in order to write this book. In the mountaineering sections, this level of detailed research lends verisimilitude to descriptions of the climb, how it affects the characters, and the nature of the environment (egregious anachronisms and all). In the non-mountaineering parts, however, his historical research intrudes to an uncomfortable degree. It too often comes across as the author showing off how much he knows, whether it serves the story or not.
It’s the kind of “everything-in-the-pot” style of storytelling which comes off as unfocused and jumbled.
In conclusion, The Abominable is a historical fiction novel which is too anachronistic to be possible and packed with too many significant coincidences to be believable. It pretends to be a supernatural thriller with nothing supernatural and too little thrill. It’s bookended by a premise that’s completely unnecessary and defuses much of the potential tension.
So unless you’re really interested in exhaustive technical descriptions of an Alpine-style attempt to climb Mt. Everest, and the physical and mental effects such a climb exerts on people, I don’t see any compelling reason for you to bother with this book.