Many times when I set out to write one of these reviews I worry about how it’s going to impact you guys at the other end. I’m a critical kind of reader, someone who obsesses with stories and how they could be made better. So naturally, its exceedingly rare that I’m going to gush about a story without saying something negative.
That said, I want you all to understand that these days I almost never write a review for a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone else.
And there are times when the part of me that wants you to read the books I recommend really worries that the analytical part of me making its critiques and criticisms will convince you that they really aren’t worth your time or money. This is one of those times.
The Abyss Above Us has its flaws; and you should read it anyway.
I suppose I should say right from the get go that this is a nerd’s book. That is neither criticism nor praise, by the way. It just is. There is jargon in this book, abstract concepts, references to computer programming and black hat hackers, and — to top it all off — a throwaway reference to the idea that beautiful women only want to date jerks. And yet somehow very little of that gets in the way of the actual story. If you get the computer programming and networking references, great; if not, there’s plenty here to keep your interest. I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent individual and even I wasn’t able to follow some of the jargon and technical talk.
That said, it never came across as talking down to the reader. Much like the unbelievably convoluted time travel film Primer you don’t actually have to be able to understand what the characters are talking about, to understand what’s happening. And rather than take away from the story, the use of jargon adds a gripping air of authenticity to the tale.
The tale is this: a young IT professional named Shaw is called in to solve a problem with the local university’s radio telescope. As it turns out the ancient computer network that runs the telescope overrides the whatever the equipment is supposed to be doing every night at one in the morning and points it at the same seemingly random patch of sky. Only it turns out there’s something special about this particular patch of sky: it is dark, utterly devoid of stars or anything else.
Our intrepid IT hero traces the problem through the network until he discovers something amazing. A room with a single computer inside, walled up for years, a thick matt of black hairy mold growing over every surface in the room. And every night at one in the morning, the computer receives a signal from that dark point in space.
The signal becomes the focus of interest among the astronomers and scientists at the college, all of them enthralled by its strange sound, a sound that resonates just on the edge of understanding. And then…
Well I don’t want to spoil too much for you. But suffice it to say that what I just described was only the opening of this story. It gets weirder. Lots weirder.
The greatest strength of The Abyss Above Us is the way it maintains a sense of mystery. There is almost never a moment in which the reader is not compelled to ask himself, “Yes, but what happens next?” I’ve come to believe that mystery is the greatest driving force of fiction — weirdly enough the stories that get this wrong most often are actual mysteries — and it’s clear that Ryan Notch gets it.
Now for the bad. I haven’t mentioned up until this point that this is a self-published book. And I’m only mentioning it now because the problems The Abyss Above Us has aren’t problems that most traditionally published books have to deal with.
For one thing: typos. Now let me moderate that. There aren’t misspelled words on every page, okay? I will not put up with that kind of laziness. It’s clear the author worked hard to make his work look professional. Unfortunately it’s also clear that he didn’t know the difference between the spelling of “dying” and “dyeing”. He gets that one wrong literally every time, and in a story where characters dye left and right it got to the point where I was joking with myself about how this story should have been set in a textile processing plant. That’s not the only mistake, just the most prevalent, and it’s a great example of why authors need competent beta-readers. We all make mistakes. An extra set of eyes never hurts.
The second issue I had with The Abyss Above Us is more fundamental. The first half of the book is phenomenal, but later, particularly the latter part of the second act, the story starts to feel repetitive. More than that, I almost got the feeling that the author was beginning to get tired of the story at that point. The prose grows weaker, “be” verbs water down sentences, the whole thing has this sense of sagging. That’s the best way I know how to put it.
And again, a another pair of eyes could have helped. A decent editor could have helped the author tighten up those sagging sentences, and break up the monotony the plot falls into near the end of the second act.
I want to reiterate: you should read this book. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fresh and compelling, in spite of any faults it may have. It blends science fiction and horror beautifully, pulling the best traits of both genres together in a way that I’ve seen very few stories pull off.
In the off-chance that Ryan Notch should happen to read this review let me just say, “Dude, “dying” =/= “dyeing”. Do a find/replace and you’re golden on, like, 90% of your typo issues.
The rest of you, go buy The Abyss Above Us. Seriously. It’s awesome.