ASCENSION DAYby Nicholas Binge
Mountains have long loomed over humanity, both physically and in our imagination. The home of gods and demons, they are simultaneously sacred and – as any viewer of mountaineering documentaries can attest – hostile. In other words, they’re ideal settings for horror-tinged speculative thrillers, including Nicholas Binge’s “Ascension.”
The novel, Binge’s second and the first to be published in the United States, begins with a mystery. Harold Tunmore, a genius physicist, disappeared decades ago, leaving a series of bizarre letters in the possession of his brother, Ben. When Ben is alerted to Harold’s presence in a mental hospital, he finds his brother alive, but seemingly driven mad by his experiences. There are also more letters from Harold. “Nobody can read them,” warns Harold. ‘If we knew what we are. …’ That night, Harold burns himself alive.
This intriguing frame story is the first puzzle of many. The rest, and most of the novel, is delivered in the form of Harold’s collected letters. An engaging narrator, Harold describes being recruited in 1991 by a well-funded but shady organization to investigate an inexplicable phenomenon: a mountain much taller than Everest has appeared in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “How does no one know this is here?” asks Harold. “It wasn’t the case until a few months ago,” he is told. Harold is carried away by the scientific conundrum and a personal one: waiting on the giant rock is his ex-wife, Dr. Naoko Tanaka, the last survivor of the previous expedition.
Harold joins fellow top scientists from a variety of disciplines, as well as a few armed military personnel. Their mission? To climb the impossible height. “This mountain – it rejects language. It makes it impotent,” writes Harold. “All that exists in its place is utter disbelief.” And what they find is equally incredible: microbes that defy scientific understanding. People who develop ESP. Time that becomes elastic. And creatures with tentacles that stalk the frozen rocks.
Believe it or not, I didn’t spoil the book. These are just a few examples of the mountain’s secrets. Though the characters rise, mysteries pile up like a snowball rolling downhill. Harold holds his own traumatic secrets that emerge in flashbacks. The novel is cleverly paced and deploys strategic twists and turns to keep the reader moving. Between the revelations, characters theorize about extra dimensions, extraterrestrial life and the meaning of existence. We also get more than a few references to the mythical climber Sisyphus.
Binge’s sharp prose moves well between sci-fi concepts, gothic terror, and fast-paced action sequences. Some of the supporting characters, including, frustratingly, Naoko, remain as thin as the upper atmosphere. But the ideas are big and the journey is great fun.
“We discovered something very new or something very old,” writes Harold. What is this mountain? Is it from another time? Another planet? Another universe? The only way to understand it is to keep climbing and see how the various mysteries are linked together at the novel’s slightly rushed peak.
Granted, mysteries aren’t necessarily surprises. Binge’s collection of devices may be familiar to sci-fi fans: brilliant but troubled scientist, doomed expedition, tesseracts, tentacled monsters. Many readers will be reminded of recent films like “Interstellar,” “Annihilation,” and “Arrival,” or, better yet, the groundbreaking works of Jeff VanderMeer and Ted Chiang, the latter two of which have been adapted. Others will think of HP Lovecraft’s tales of eldritch monsters inhabiting impossible structures.
But familiarity, done well, can be a great literary pleasure. “Ascension” taps into popular conceits with an intriguing setting and memorable scenes. Even with recognizable puzzle pieces, the complete picture is as unique as the huge mountain in the middle of the book. For fans of well-crafted sci-fi and cosmic horror scares, “Ascension” is worth the climb.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the short story collection ‘Upright Beasts’ and the novel ‘The Body Scout’, which was named one of the best science fiction or fantasy books of 2021 by the Book Review.
ASCENSION DAY | By Nicholas Binge | 344 pp. | Riverhead Books | $28