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"Ascension" Is Lovecraft by Way of Camus
Nicholas Binge's new novel has lofty ambitions whose summit its familiar pastiche of Lovecraftian cosmic mysteries can't quite reach.
Nicolas Binge | Riverhead | 2023 | 352 pages | ISBN: 9780593539583 | $27
British novelist Nicholas Binge’s first American release, Ascension, garnered a large number of reviews because of its irresistible hook: In 1991, a mountain taller than Everest suddenly appears in the Pacific and a mysterious organization assembles a crack team of explorers to uncover a cosmic secret lurking upon its icy summit. Told in flashback as a series of increasingly bizarre letters from a possibly unreliable narrator, Ascension had all the elements to be an exciting, mind-blowing exploration of the uncanny and the unknown. However, the book ultimately proves itself to be a derivative remix of familiar tropes, married to paper-thin characters that alternate between unpleasant and unbelievable. When one character triumphantly notes that no one had noticed his frequent absences, I shrugged because the writing paid so little attention to the characters none of them was noteworthy a absence.
The frame story involves the discovery that scientist Harold Tunmore is not dead, as his brother had presumed, but has spent three decades locked in a mental hospital. When the brothers reunite, Tunmore promptly dies, leaving behind a series of letters written in the 1990s. The letters form the bulk of the novel, outlining how Tunmore came to be recruited to explore the new mountain alongside a team of forgettable, mostly military, associates, including his ex-wife. As the story progresses, tentacled Lovecraftian monsters pick off the crew one by one as a cosmic mystery involving the mystery of life unfolds and Tunmore reckons with the poor decisions he made in the run-up to and aftermath of the death of his adopted son years earlier and the collapse of his marriage. The story becomes, then, an effort to achieve emotional closure in the face of transmundane horror, paralleling the life of a family and fate of humanity—and it is no spoiler to recall that in the prologue set after these events, Tunmore’s mind is already shattered. The symbolism in the novel is, let’s say, not subtle.
A fair warning: The rest of this review will contain spoilers. If you plan to read Ascension, save the rest of this discussion until you’ve finished the novel.
I’ll dispense with the human element first, since it is the most disposable. Tunmore’s crumbling marriage and his failed efforts to raise a child, who dies (symbolically and with foreshadowing for the cosmic plot) due to his own hubris form a trite backstory that adds little to the main narrative beyond padding. It is unoriginal and largely uninteresting. The other half of the book is more inspired, if by inspired we mean that it copies as slavishly from its predecessors as the marriage story does from melodramas.
Binge’s Ascension wears its inspirations on its sleeve. From the icy mountain setting to the caves full of ancient inscriptions and the mindless, violent tentacled creatures chasing our heroes, the story is quite obviously a riff on At the Mountains of Madness. When we learn that those creatures were failed experiment by a now-vanished master race that came to the earth in ancient times, it’s impossible not to compare them to H. P. Lovecraft’s shoggoths. Similarly, the resolution of the cosmic mystery of the mountain—that it is a multi-dimensional construct full of portals through space-time, operated by godlike entities from beyond the gate quite clearly stakes out the novel’s connection to Lovecraft’s and E. Hoffman Price’s “Through the Gate of the Silver Key.” Even Tunmore’s background as a brainy, whiny Anglo with little connection to the earthy world of the masses is straight out of Lovecraft.
A modernized Lovecraft pastiche could be fun. But this pastiche forgets what made Lovecraft’s fiction so powerful. Lovecraft abstracted his fears (sadly, these fears were almost always non-white people) into something alien and inhuman. He separated his stories from the everyday concerns of life, which helped the monsters and godlike aliens feel like something beyond human. Binge, by contrast, tries to ground his story in humanity. When Tunmore reaches the summit of the mountain—revealed to be the original inspiration for cosmic mountains like Olympus and Meru—and encounters the god that stands atop it, this cosmic being is depressingly human. He claims to be vastly superior, but he is little more than a projection of humanity’s hubris. It doesn’t help that Binge has him infiltrate the crew under the code name Neil Amai, which is “I am alien” backward. The characters point this out in shock and horror. This is exactly as dramatic and powerful as when Count Dracula travels under the name Count Alucard in Son of Dracula.
Ultimately, though, the joke about “I am alien” is actually the whole point of the book. It’s absurd, and the absurdity is the essence of the novel. While Binge took the form of a Lovecraft story and stretched it beyond the point it could hold interest, his real intellectual inspiration was something else entirely. Most reviewers missed the repeated references to the myth of Sisyphus in Ascension, seeing Tunmore’s repeated reference to the Greek story of the man condemned to repeatedly push a rock up a mountain in the Underworld only to see it roll back down merely as a mythic parallel to Tunmore’s own desire to climb the mystery mountain. (Indeed, they do so because that’s what Tunmore says he’s using it for.)
But it’s really a reference to Albert Camus’s most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), in which Camus laid out his philosophy of existentialism as a battle for meaning against the absurdity of life. Tunmore all but quotes from Camus uncredited, and the ultimate revelation that human life is simply a meaningless experiment by bored, flawed aliens, doomed to run down into stagnation, void of any grander meaning, is Existentialism 101. (Camus himself rejected the term “existentialism,” but we don’t need to get into the fine details since no one I will discuss in this review would seem capable of making such fine distinctions.) In both Camus and the novel, with the universe stripped of any meaningful divine presence and the possibility for progress voided, only the individual’s effort to find personal meaning in the absurdity of life holds any hope. As in Camus’s essay, the novelist’s hero resists the temptation to seek death and instead continues on, and if you didn’t know Camus, you wouldn’t be able to tell which book this line came from: “The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
To an extent, existentialism and Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic indifference are compatible, with Lovecraft perhaps almost a proto-existentialist. Both sought to reckon with a godless, indifferent cosmos and both argued that meaning derives from the individual’s relationship to society and to history. However, Lovecraft sought meaning in tradition, continuity, and (sigh, again) race, with an emphasis on the rigid order created by scientific truth, while existentialists did not see history and tradition as a source of dignity but viewed the whole of reality as absurd and unreasonable. Lovecraft was not praising the Cthulhu cult when he described them as “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy,” but this is more or less the end state that Camus envisioned for the absurd man.
What I found striking in Binge’s Ascension is how his marriage of a fairly straightforward ancient astronaut narrative straight out of Ancient Aliens (the aliens are, like those of the show, basically humans with better tech) and existentialist philosophy closely mirrors what we see in the UFO / ancient astronaut community right now. There is perhaps no better proponent of this than Avi Loeb, the Harvard astronomer and head of the Galileo Project who has written extensively not just of his personal love of existentialism but his belief that space aliens are existentialists who share his belief in the absurdity of reality. This, too, is the basic message of Ancient Aliens, though in a more postmodern way: believe what you want, make your own meaning, everything is absurd so no belief is too crazy not consider possible.
I’m not sure why existentialism and aliens are circling each other right now, except perhaps as a backhanded acknowledgement of the silliness—the absurdity—of the mythology of extraterrestrial encounters. But whether in Ascension or on Ancient Aliens, the underlying feeling of disconnection from history, tradition, culture, and faith is likely the bigger motivating factor. Rejecting science, particularly evolutionary theory, in favor of absurd aliens and their nonsensical, and far too human, plots is what happens when it becomes impossible to imagine a just world with a benevolent god but the alternative of cosmic indifference in an atheistic universe is too cold to contemplate.