Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.
I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.
I finished the second book in the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms. I’ll try to sort out my reactions below…
- Jemisin has created a world that feels absolutely alien and inhuman, despite all the characters being either human or divine in human form. This world feels like it should be recognizable, but the powers that all of these characters have are so dramatic and always in conflict, with mortals stealing from gods and gods trying to contain mortal power.
- She borrows characters, or archetypes, from all sorts of mythological traditions, but nothing feels immediately recognizable. I find that sort of uncanniness compelling, because the sort of approach where a character appears and I as the reader can immediately say, of course, that’s Thor, feels lazy and uninspired to me.
- It’s more than just compelling, somehow, and that’s why I’m struggling so much with analyzing a novel that I enjoyed, a lot.
- I can’t find a typical lens to read it through – it’s clearly about power, and energy, and identity, but those are not the typical fantasy lenses, and thus my struggle.
- I get a bit of a feel of the Malazan series, but without the endless deaths and cannon fodder. This book only has one major character die, but there are no minor characters – everyone in here is dangerous in some way that they might not even comprehend.
- I can’t wait for the third book to come up in rotation.
I’ve been hearing about Salzi for a while, and I hadn’t picked anything up by him, but since there are no more Expanse novels to read and I need a hard sci-fi fix I figured what the heck…
I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire, especially since it had a Wolfe/Silverberg feel with the late reveal of the reasons why the political and economic system exists the way it does. As always, thoughts:
- Scalzi is in love in this novel at least with smart ass characters, and he has a couple of good ones in a couple of the houses.
- Speaking of which, at first I was frustrated by the feudalistic system this seems to represent, and then the explanation of the interdependency that has arisen from the the discovery of how to travel in the Flow hit, and I got it. This isn’t some sort of Frank Herbert thing, with an inability to imagine space as anything but a continuation of humanity’s (supposed) search for empires – there are reasons of survival that have created this system, at least originally, as each of the planets was forced to become dependent on the others in order to ensure that humans got along.
- It’s not surprising, perhaps, that this all went wrong…
I read Parable of the Sower a long time ago, and reading a ton of dystopic fiction made me remember to pick up Butler again, who was one of the first. Parable of the Talents had me reading too quickly.
- The narrative device she used was cool, even if it took me some time to figure out. The story is being told by Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the first novel, but in this one we get a preface to begin each chapter by her daughter, who survives the destruction of Earthseed and has a strained relationship with her mother. We essentially know that Lauren will survive, since the daughter’s passages talk about meeting her again in the future, and the look from the future gave a sense of the cost to her own humanity that Lauren goes through in order to create Earthseed.
- “God is change” is the constant refrain in this novel, the basis of the religion of Earthseed. I admire Butler’s relentless optimism, even though she writes a dystopic novel set in a California that is rapidly becoming too hot to live in and in a USA that briefly falls sway to religious zealot as President. God is change is Butler’s attempt to show a way we can live with religion and science, a way to essentially think of earth through a sort of gaia theory (without all the sentience) and to understand how we can fit into the planet.
- Of course, Butler’s work isn’t easy, so Lauren – despite offering us a way to live on earth – is convinced that we have destroyed it too badly and wants humanity to head to the stars.
- As often happens in her novels, Butler shows how horrible people can be to each other. This novel is full of slavery – called indentured servitude or prison sentences – that has arisen in a USA that is rapidly sliding into meaninglessness. Shock collars are used to keep people subdued, and they are incredibly effective.
- I was often disturbed by how close to reality this often felt. People in towns that were still intact were intentionally ignorant of the nastiness happening around them, except when they had to defend themselves from it. Parts of the country still work – they’re able to hold a presidential vote – and other parts are sheer chaos. All of this is caused by the dislocation and disruption of declining natural resources matched with climate change. Who could have seen any of that?
I am seemingly determined to work my way through all of these novels. Sharpe’s Trafalgar gives Sharpe an excuse to write about the Battle of Trafalgar and to paint a heroic portrait of Admiral Nelson that had me wondering about how historically accurate it was (in a good way!). Cornwell admits that he contrives to get Sharpe there, but as all of this series is an attempt to add reality and grit to portraits of European colonialism and the continental wars of Napoleon’s time then I’m not sure the manipulations matter all that much.
- The descriptions of ship life are pretty stark and brutal and I’m guessing honest. I sort of wonder if there’s a bit of a gross-out factor happening here, but I appreciate them much as I liked how Battlestar Galactica made Star Trek seem insanely clean and sterile.
- The casualties in these battles are horrific, and the fact that bodies are dumped overboard feels insanely irreverent to a twenty-first century denizen…
- Masculinity is also under examination in this series, and the construction that Cornwell does justifies my like of the fake combat of mosh pits and rugby. Every utopia that I try to imagine has to deal with human, often masculine aggression wired into our lizard brains, and utopias that pretend that that doesn’t exist make no sense to me.
- Sharpe at one point feels guilty about his love of combat, but there is clearly some sort of emotion (perhaps it’s joy, as Cornwell describes it) in the physical contest between humans. And there is clearly something to combat…
- In the short story that follows Sharpe’s Trafalgar in this edition Cornwell has a Spanish partisan who is a woman. Unfortunately, she’s also Sharpe’s lover, but he is attempting, I guess, to include women in these types of histories…