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 re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading
Thoughts on Paul Beatty’s latest, The Sellout:
- Beatty’s book feels a bit like George Saunders’s work – funny in a biting, oh-shit-that’s-so-fucked-up-but-so-true kind of way. The landscape he creates – a sort of agrarian, pastoral inner suburb that is almost entirely African-American – hints at the larger dysfunction surrounding it without revealing much.
- Yes, this is about race, and I’m still puzzling out several pieces. It also reminds me a bit of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the way it ends, with the narrator returning home after a landmark court case. It concerns itself with how minorities function in an absurdly racist society, and this narrator tries to turn contemporary cultural mores on their head by having a slave (not really, but the guy calls himself that and won’t let the narrator alone) and forcing a school to be segregated.
- There’s some complicated psychological stuff going on here – by forcing the school to keep out whites, whites want to go (resulting partially in the narrator ending up in the Supreme Court as a defendant). Hominy Jenkins, the guy who wants to go back to slavery, does so because he feels that he has a place and a role.
- Both, I think, show Beatty taking standard right-wing talking points and putting them in a petri dish…neither does what those folks think it would.
- I’m guessing RBG asks the question that this novel plays with – “what do we mean by ‘black’?” This isn’t what does it mean to be black, or how does being black affect one’s identity – Beatty’s question is more fundamental (and the narrator approves) – we pay lip service to the idea that race is a construction, but how does that improve the lives of people? Our narrator, who grew up as a social experiment in race, is a farmer who produces delicious fruit, is a surfer who loves surfing enough to consider making his farm a huge wave pool, challenges all kinds of status quos by turning buses back into vehicles of segregation, by convincing a middle school principal to segregate her school, and by having the aforementioned slave.
- Finally, the onslaught of pop culture references I think speak to the impossibility of knowing the origin of anything, especially since the strings that Beatty places them in can be wildly various.
- I have a feeling that this book is one I will return to…
Musings on the prevalence of dystopia in young adult fiction…
- Obvious thought #1: dystopias offer readers a chance to remake their world, even if the ways in which this happens are not all that pleasant or even desirable. From my subject position the stakes seem higher: connections with the natural world are harder to come by, the destruction of the planet looms, older folks keep threatening (and succeeding) with getting them into an ever-increasingly vague and confused series of wars from which they may or may not come back whole, things that seem clear to the majority of their generation (race and gender are constructs, capitalism has limits, consumerism is destructive, the poor are just like those who are not) are sources of anger and bad arguments by those older.
- The problem with dystopias, though, is that there are still residues from the old world. That may not be a problem, especially if dystopias are canvases that we can draw our own desires on. What are those desires?
- Fewer other people, perhaps, and a world where everyone is joined in a common purpose *because* of the dystopic threat that all simultaneously face…
- Complications about good and evil disappear, as with the vast majority of folks gone sides are easily determined.
There are many more, of course…
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?