This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
In addition to the deep diving I’m doing for my second read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I read the second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Authority. I’m enjoying this series a lot…and, as always, thoughts:
- The gradual dissolution of government authority, with the increased anxiety felt by Control, is a nice subversion of the scientists losing control of the project trope that often runs through science fiction. There is no control, at all, and the fact that the government tries to impose it even though the scientists there (who are trying to be team players) are telling them that there is no such thing neatly tweaks a tired theme.
- I’m glad to see the biologist back, and particularly glad that she escaped. Here’s hoping that the dive into the portal at the end is as cool as it sounds.
- The idea that an ecological disaster is underplayed by authority fits the standard sort of pr by crisis approach, I think. It’s the sort of vague, tepid, ultimately ridiculous response that stands in for our own response to climate change. When our kids are underwater we will probably grow very concerned and write stern letters to the people in charge.
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.