"Every incident of that four-and-a-half-hour flight is burned into my recollection because of its crucial position in my life. It marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external nature and nature's laws."
Author: H. P. Lovecraft
Publisher: Astounding Stories Magazine
Howdy there blogosphere!
So I finally finished At the Mountains of Madness a few weeks ago, the ninth novel on my list, but I needed some time to, well, get over it before writing a review about it. You see, ATMOM was quite a tough read and I needed a break after reading it. By tough read I mean that it was so overly descriptive that at certain points I simply couldn't take it anymore. Think LOTR/Tolkien to the extreme. There was so much detailed, minute description in this novel that I almost didn't get through it. Anyways, let's get to the review. I'm going to be focusing more on the themes presented in ATMOM rather than the story itself, which I didn't really enjoy.
Plot and Narration
At the Mountains of Madness is about an expedition to the Arctic narrated by the main character, Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University. The story is told after the fact, and Dr. Dyer is publicizing what happened during his expedition in order to dissuade others from following in his footsteps.
"I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why."
Dr. Dyer then proceeds to recount every single detail (seriously) about his expedition to Antarctica and the subsequent horrors he finds there. I can't really complete this post without talking about what he and his crew found there, so *spoiler alert* they find an ancient alien city and aliens. The story itself is actually quite interesting and exciting but is really rather hindered by Lovecraft's overzealous descriptions. I'm all for descriptive world-building, but the man took it too far. Sorry, Lovecraft.
Theme: Exploration of the Unknown
ATMOM centers on a big geological and geographical expedition to the Arctic. During the expedition, part of the crew flies off to another section of the continent and, of course, that's where the trouble begins. When Dyer and the rest of his crew join the others, they are met with inexplicable death and horror. The subsequent discovery of the ancient alien city renders one of his colleagues insane for the rest of his life, and Dyer too seems to be holding on to his sanity by the thinnest of threads.
ATMOM shows the risk taken in exploring unknown territories. There will always be risk in exploration. So the question we find ourselves facing is, is it worth it?
Despite the terrifying alien encounter described in the story, I say exploration is almost always worth it. In fact, you can read about exciting real-life exploration in my post on Breakthrough Starshot. I think there are very few cases for which I would say that the risk is not worth it. Exploration is an integral part of the experience of our species. How many other animals explore the way we do? Not just for food or living purposes, but out of sheer curiosity. For the sake of knowledge itself. I'll admit, I feel a little bad saying this, seeing as how one of the main characters in the novel goes mad because of the horrors he experienced. The expedition certainly wasn't worth it for him! Is it okay to accept the risk of such casualties in pursuit of knowledge? I say yes, though I do feel kind of bad about it.
Theme: Ancient Alien Civilizations
"We soon realized, from what the carvings revealed, that this monstrous city was many million years old."
If you've ever seen the show Ancient Aliens, you'll know there's a fair bit of physical evidence for the theory that aliens visited Earth a looong time ago. (The show got a bit out of hand with its theories, so I had to stop watching it.) It's an exciting theory and a great idea for a story, as shown by ATMOM. The idea that aliens may have visited our home millions of years ago spurs so many questions. Why did they come? Where did they come from? How did they get here? Why aren't they around anymore?
I do believe that aliens are out there somewhere. I'm less sure about whether they are as advanced as we typically image aliens to be and about any interest they may have in Earth, if they even know about it. In ATMOM the alien Dyer and his colleague encounter is of the scary I'm-gonna-get-you type. But I like to think that this would not be the case in real life. The recent movie Arrival is more along the lines of what I'm hoping for in any first contact.
So overall I have to say that ATMOM was not my favourite sci-fi novel. I doubt it'll even make my top ten list. The story was just spoiled by Lovecraft's over-the-top descriptions about absolutely everything. All the novels I've read so far have been of this type, which was very clearly the style of writing back in the day. But Lovecraft takes the cake on this one. Unfortunately it really hindered my enjoyment of the novel, to the point that I didn't enjoy it all. I did like the themes though, so I tried to focus more on them in this post.
Up next is Out of the Silent Planet, the first novel of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy!
Quotations: Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness. California: Rising Star Visionary Press, 2009. Kindle Edition.