Review: Ascension - Nicholas Binge
Genre: horror, sci-fi/speculative fiction Published: HarperVoyager, April 2023 My Rating: 2.5/5 very conflicted stars
Ascension was one of my most anticipated speculative/sci-fi releases of 2023, because of its intriguing concept, as well as comparisons to books like Annihilation and Thin Air: A Ghost Story. In the end, I was left feeling very conflicted. The majority of what want to discuss is spoiler-filled, so I’ll divide this review into three parts: synopsis, spoiler-free opinions, and the spoiler-discussion. Please proceed with caution in the final section!
An enormous, mysterious mountain has appeared in the Pacific Ocean. No one knows when exactly it showed up, precisely how big it might be, or how to explain its existence. An expedition-team, made up of mostly scientists from different fields, is gathered for a daring mission to scale the mountain and uncover its secrets. Amongst them is the brilliant physicist and former medical doctor Harold Tunmore.
Years later, his brother finds a collection of journals and unsent letters he composed, chronicling the events on the mountain as they unfolded. Will these letters finally bring closure as to what happened, or perhaps offer more questions than answers instead.
Ascension felt like a book with an identity crisis. It’s a strange mixture of smart speculative concepts, and some of the worst dialogue and cheesy, cliché reveals I’ve read in a B-horror. Had Binge taken the concept fully either way, I think I would have loved this more. As an example: I love Annihilation and its full embrace of the strange and metaphysical. But I also love The Anomaly for being an unashamed camp fest. This mixes elements of both these books in ways that don’t quite jell together, taking away from what could’ve been great.
I also didn’t enjoy this epistolary format of the book. I have nothing against epistolary novels in general, but it mismatched with the high-stake and at times high-paced nature of the story. I kept asking myself: when between life-threatening events exactly did the protagonist sit down to leisurely write these letters?
Find this book here on Goodreads.
BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW
I will get straight to the point: I was fully on board with all the metaphysical shenanigans: time-distortions, quantum-states and conversations on science, philosophy and religion. We were clearly on a track of high-speculative sci-fi here. The addition of an emotional backstory to Harold, and his crushing guilt over the death of his son driving him to his relentless pursuit for answers on this mountain, fitted this style well. Then I was suddenly thrown completely off kilter by the addition of a species of monsters on the mountain (honestly, the environmental claustrophobia was enough, so I don’t think any suspense would’ve been lost if we’d ditched the leviathans completely). This is why mentioned The Anomaly as my other comparison in the spoiler-free section: that book pulls of the monster-trope by leaning all the way into its B-movie style. Monsters don’t feel out of place in that world. In this one, filled with very serious science and high-brow concepts, they just feel goofy. The same can be said for the alien-ending, but even more so for the foreshadowing. If you want a laugh, you can check out my status-updates on reading this book and see the exact moment I pick up on the twist, disregard it because it’s too stupid to actually be true, and then go through several stages of grief when I realize that, yes, the author is actually doing this shit. They literally named one of the already sussy-characters I AM ALIEN spelled backwards. Please sir, get in the bin right now…. Then last but not least of my complaints is the way these characters talk to each other. There’s the fact that the letters and journals we’re reading are addressed to the protagonists teenage niece, and yet this adult man is completely fine with including explicit language and descriptions of his sexual escapades with his wife in them… Yikes… Yet the in-person dialogue is no better… From characters insisting they be called “the Warden” (spoken in a stern tone and with a stone-faced expression, mind you), and nobody thinking that’s a bit weird, to passages like this one: <i>“when I come for you, I will come in a blaze of fire and heat. I will burn my way through the heavens searching for you, and I will find you. I promise you that.”</i> If it were me lying there on the floor dying, at least I’d die laughing, because Oh my Lord… That’s only a few tentpoles shy of a camp-fest right there…