In Nicholas Binge’s Ascension, a mountain of nearly unimaginable size appears suddenly in the middle of the ocean, its sides plunging steeply into the sea, its mysterious peak looming unattainably in the clouds, nearly 10,000 feet higher than Mount Everest. The mountain stuns physicist Harold Tunmore, not just because of its sudden materialization, but also because of its massive scale. In a letter to his niece, he remarks that on the mountain, “Words felt insufficient, out of place. In the face of its magnitude, simile and metaphor felt ridiculous. This mountain—it rejects language. It renders it impotent. All that exists in its place is an utter disbelief, and an almost religious awe.”
Binge’s first American release feels similarly overwhelming in size and scope, leaving me at a loss for how to encapsulate such a heady mix of wildly imaginative, action-packed storytelling and probing philosophical examination of—quite literally—the meaning of life. In Ascension, the mysterious mountain tests Harold with physical threats so bizarre that they do at times flirt with the ridiculous, but it also serves (in the time-honored tradition of mystical mountains) as a ladder to his ultimate enlightenment.
Harold is a solitary but brilliant physicist who is mostly estranged from his family and struggling to escape a tragedy in his past. He is unexpectedly approached by agents of an unidentified organization who persuade him to join a top secret expedition to explore the sudden mountain. When he arrives at base camp, he meets the expedition team: a mix of former military personnel and a group of renowned scientists (a chemist, a geologist, a biologist, and an anthropologist) that includes his estranged wife, physician Naoko Tanaka. Naoko is one of the few surviving members of the previous expedition to the summit, whose violent outcome is a closely guarded secret.
Despite this bad precedent and the difficult conditions of the ascent, the climbers feel mysteriously drawn to the top of the mountain by a force they cannot explain. But the expedition’s cryptic leaders restrict information, leaving Harold and the team mostly in the dark about their mission and the dangers they face. As tensions and mistrust rise, the team soon encounters challenges beyond their wildest imaginations, putting their mission and their lives at stake.
While some members of the expedition occasionally feel like personifications of perspectives on some of the novel’s big questions—science versus god, free will versus determinism—they are nevertheless well-drawn and memorable despite their numbers. In particular, brusque, unflappable Soviet biologist Polya Volikova and expedition leader (and narcissistic asshole) Roger Bettan steal nearly every scene they are in.
Harold recounts his experiences on the mountain in letters to his niece, recording the events of the climb in nearly real time even as it unravels into madness and death. I’ve loved epistolary novels from Dracula to Bridget Jones, and I can easily suspend enough disbelief to allow for the seemingly inconvenient live chronicling of traumatic events (after all, people live tweet everything from divorce proceedings to bank robberies these days). But as this story goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine even a staid and data-driven man like Harold pulling up from the terror and bloodshed around him and using his frozen fingers to write detailed letters with pages of dialogue right there in the midst of it all.
That said, the letters’ heartfelt, reflective qualities are an effective conduit for the most valuable thing the novel has to offer: Harold’s reckoning with his past. As Harold reconnects with Naoko on the mountain, he revisits his past in his letters, explaining its traumas to his niece and agonizing over how it does—and how it should—inform his actions in his dicey present. Though only part of a cascading series of (often disturbing) revelations about being human, Harold’s journey toward accepting his past evinces a quiet genuineness that both defies truism and contrasts with the occasionally outlandish hoopla of the rest of the plot.
There’s a practical benefit to the letters, too: they also help with The Science. Solving the mystery of the mountain requires creative application of scientific theories, some standard, some more speculative. It’s a smorgasbord of DNA, evolution, gravity, time dilation,and additional spatial and temporal dimensions, among other things. These concepts are rolled out in a satisfyingly smooth exposition via Harold’s letters, both through his transcriptions of the conversations among the expedition team and the additional context he offers to his niece. Binge manages to provide just enough complexity to please science fiction fans, while not alienating readers who are less inclined. I myself am among the latter, as I am the type of lackadaisical sci-fi fan who is content to smile and nod through frantic discussions about the dangers of temporal incursions or the wisdom of reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. Yet thanks to Binge’s careful groundwork, I found myself feeling surprisingly in the loop with Harold’s theories on the best way to navigate and survive the mountain.
Appropriately, the story’s climax occurs at the mountain’s summit. While I wonder now if I should have seen it all coming, I did not. And as much fun as it was to watch the pieces click together, my struggle to describe this book continues even after all has been revealed. It is a fun read, but it’s too weighty to qualify as a “romp.” It’s full of frenetic action and packed with twists and turns, gun fights and villains, but it’s also a sustained reflection on the limits of being human. It’s not particularly optimistic, yet it offers a profound consideration of where our true power lies. Ultimately, it’s worth the climb.
By Nicholas Binge
Published on April 25, 2023
Dana Dunham is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.