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 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 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?
My latest attempt to understand Philip Roth’s work is reading American Pastoral. It is set in a changing Newark, and features Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov as its protagonist, struggling keeping his factory open and his American dream alive through the 1960s.
- There is a novel-within-a-novel here, as we are unsure if the Swede actually exists or is merely the figment of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination (Zuckerman is Roth’s narrator and feels a lot like Roth). We find out that the Swede is a person based on other people’s memories of him as Zuckerman talks to folks at his 45th high school reunion, but the recreation that we get does not include parts of the Swede’s life (a second marriage with sons).
- I was shocked to see how many bombings the Weathermen had done over the years. I don’t remember them as a reign of terror, which confuses me in the age of amber alerts, when we are supposed to be afraid all the time. Maybe my parents just kept us out of the fear, and of course I couldn’t read all the Twitter posts debating the bombers so I couldn’t, perhaps, get worked up about it.
- The novel feels Proustian in its intense immersion into characters’ heads, ranging from Swede to his first wife Dawn. Zuckerman as narrator invokes Proust, so I’m guessing the model is deliberate.
- The Swede is as caucasian as a Jew can get – nordic looks, blonde hair, factory owner, star athlete, married to an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, the works. Roth uses that juxtaposition neatly to talk about some of the contradictions at the heart of American Judaism – political progressivism with belief in capitalism, marginalized ethnicity vs. desire to be a part of the US mainstream, a need to be patriots (Levov is Marine vet) vs. an understanding of some of the basic contradictions of American society (and the resulting desire to tear that society apart).
- Roth’s American Pastoral is distinctly east coast and suburban. The Swede moves with his family to the farm country of New Jersey, and they go so far as to become almost gentlemen farmers, with the Swede driving in to his factory everyday in Newark (at least until he has to close up shop).
- The horror seems to come from the fact that the product of the perfect Jewish family can become an American-bred terrorist who bombs post offices as part of the Weathermen. That’s the question I can’t figure out – it feels as if Roth is looking to identify the sources of Merry’s radicalisation, and if so then he seems to identify them as equally part being a Jew in America and the United States’s bloody history of conquest. I’m not sure that blame is what Roth is trying to apportion – I’m reminded of an admonition that I heard lots of times in grad school and that I take to heart, that the best novels feature really smart people wrestling with nearly intractable problems – but some sort of trying to understand is definitely happening here.
- I’m tempted to see this novel as indictment of parents who try to understand their kids, but that might be too easy on my part…
- I struggle though with thinking of this novel as a study of why folks become radicals .Merry’s stuttering, her inability to live up to the glamour of her parents, her exposure to radical politics in NYC, these all felt too easy to me as a sort of psychological understanding of why people become radicalized.
After reading Lord’s Redemption in Indigo I felt the need to look up more of her novels, and downloaded The Best of All Possible Worlds from my local library. It’s completely different in setting although sort of similar in its intense concentration on relationships and what an earlier time might have called domesticity.
- Somehow, Lord writes a novel that describes both the plight and the courage of refugees that feels both grounded in realistic human behaviors and feels apolitical. I’m not saying it is apolitical, but…
- The ways in which the home planet of Terrans accepts their near-cousins (the Sadiri) neatly emphasizes how racial identity is a social construct. Terrans are capable of the same mental capabilities, but cultural differences and emphases have produced one race that relies on the powers of meditation and control and other that is more grounded in emotions and the qualities of resilience.
- Lord’s desire to add how partnerships and relationships are developed in different cultures to the scifi oeuvre would probably have made my teenage self go ewww, but reading these now makes perfect sense. I found the novel to be the sort that I trouble putting down despite the biggest risk to the protagonist being a former lover who controls people telepathically (but who is put in jail by those who set the standards for telepathic behavior) and losing her career over a move to get a slavery ring into the public eye. Not exactly riveting-type The Expanse-style stuff, but not romance fodder either.
- Her desire to make space not just human but also factor in what feel like genetic mutations of humans that did not originate on Earth is pretty cool. The novel does not make this connection explicit, but I get the feeling that the origin point of humanoid species is not Terra…
- Her questions about what constitues ideal masculinity are also pretty interesting, and helped me think about the ways in which scifi continuously constructs masculinity in what often feels like a retro fashion even with a generic history that includes Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delaney.
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo features a protagonist, Paama, who goes toe-to-toe with Chance in order to retain the Chaos Stick. That she [SPOILER ALERT] willfully gives it back to him, and that both she and Chance learn something along the way is just one of the ways in which Lord’s novel messes with generic expectations. She ends up happily married to a younger man, after burying her first husband who ate himself to death.
- My synopsis does not do this novel justice. Paama is the antithesis of those sorts of supposedly genre-bending young female heroines that are featured in much current YA lit – she is married to a man she does not love but cannot hate, she is a great cook, she has no desire to learn how to wield the power she has been given, and she acts with compassion and empathy even when the results are not what she would like.
- Lord’s narrator is lively, self-aware, and interested in engaging us in a conversation, even if it constantly defends itself from charges of defying what it feels our expectations will be. The narrator is far different than Paama, and often asks us not to judge her or other characters at surprising points in the novel – the one that struck me most was when Paama goes back to nurse Ansige, her first husband, as he dies from the consequences of over-eating. Ansige is set up as entirely unsympathetic, and yet Paama knows that her duty is to be with him until he passes. This is territory not often covered in this genre.
- In that sense this novel comes directly from the land of folk tales, written with a postmodern sensibility and an eye towards redeeming our relationships with each other and with the forces in the world that causes things to happen that we do not understand. The narrative voice helps with this redemption with its energy and desire to always keep us looking outside the text.
- The natural forces in this novel are definitely not supernatural, and are also not aligned along a good-evil binary. Again, it is very unlike lots of YA fiction that’s out now, with barely-disguised good and evil aligned along metaphoric lines. I admire the effort that some of that fiction makes, but killing off characters does not necessarily make a novel complex, even when that plot-level action defies generic expectations. What makes ASOIAF complex is not the fact that Ned Stark dies early on, but that GRRM (at least I though he was, before the teevee series) is looking at issues of planetary balance and the appearance of science in the Enlightement. Defying generic expectations does not necessarily equal complexity.
- Part of the joy of Gaiman’s Sandman series was the ways in which entities simply operated in their own best interests, with complex understandings of how those interests meshed with those of other entities. Lord’s novel adds the idea of duty to that mix.
- This binary allows her to comment on humans and their needs through her narrator (which isn’t exactly human, but not exactly a djombi):
Humans did not hold such power within themselves easily; they had a deep-seated need for symbols, talismans, and representations. (61)
- Her epilogue continues the feisty narrator theme. I cannot tell if she’s chastising academics or those who read for escape – I think it’s the latter, but I’m not completely sure. Representative of this trope from the many pieces of advice we get from the narrator is this one:
For others a tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute. (157)