Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way thatJeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way that unsettles - and occasionally terrifies - the reader, drawing us in to this exploration of a region which has, somehow, been separated from the rest of the world by forces unknown, and possibly unknowable. However, if you ask what it is about, I would squirm like an aesthete; that is much harder to pin down - and this is, in truth, part of the mythic power of the books. Th story might be about memory and growth, about the places we start from and where we end up, the choices we make along the way; about environmentalism and the pointless, unwinnable and self-destructive war humanity is waging against nature; about the ultimate unknowableness of the cold, uncaring universe. About the human need to to fight against the inevitability of annihilation and ever present authority and to come to an acceptance of what is.
In the first novel the 12th expedition into Area X have no names, having been reduced to their roles of Biologist, Psychologist, Linguist, etc, in what seems to be a (futile) effort to rob them of their identities to 'protect' them from the effects of this strange land, although it turns out to be not the least help as the initial strangeness eats away at them and this quickly ramps up to a horror that is bizarre and unimaginable while being somehow deeply personal. Annihilation defies understanding and is all the more terrifying for it.
The following volumes expand both the background and subsequent events and also ground the goings on; whilst in the first book we had no idea when or where this took place, we now see this is some version of the US and, outside of Area X, the characters have names and lives and histories. While we lose an uncertainty and universality in this, this allows VanderMeer to build real character and expand the scope of the mystery of what IS Area X.
I have only given Acceptance 4 out of 5, although the trilogy as a whole is definitely a 5. I think that the whole should, perhaps, be read as a single book to allow the connections throughout the story to work, for each part to build upon the other, although I doubt that any firm conclusion is possible, which is part of the strength of these books. They will stay with you and unsettle you long after you turn the last page....more
Some good tales in issue 255 of the venerable SF magazine, and no real duds. I really liked Thana Niveau's 'The Calling of Night's Ocean', about a resSome good tales in issue 255 of the venerable SF magazine, and no real duds. I really liked Thana Niveau's 'The Calling of Night's Ocean', about a researcher trying to communicate with a dolphin and the unexpected consequences when this is achieved, and 'Mind the Gap' by Jennifer Dornan-Fish, also a story about communication with an AI given consciousness by use of an artificial sensorium but still unsure whether it is truly conscious. 'Oubliette' from E. Catherine Toblar is beautifully written but rather opaque of meaning, a small poem of a story....more
One of those SF books I've been long aware of but have never got around to, Dreamsnake is the tale of a woman called Snake, a healer who travels a blaOne of those SF books I've been long aware of but have never got around to, Dreamsnake is the tale of a woman called Snake, a healer who travels a blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape offering her services where they are needed, partly via means of genetically engineered serpents which can synthesise cures to ailments and then inject them by biting the patients. When the rarest of her three snakes is killed she sets out to redeem herself for what she sees as an irreplaceable loss that she has caused.
The world is well rendered, the apocalypse there as a fact, some indefinable time in the (distant?) past, complete with areas of deadly radiation and strange (alien?) plants and humanity scattered into tribes with their own traditions and cultures that warily trade with each other via wandering caravans. It feels small, this world, with travel only possible on foot or horseback and, while there is a definite sense of danger, most of the world seems to have settled into a relatively safe equilibrium. One where the young woman snake feels that she can travel alone in safety, protected only by the regard people have for her profession. While we do realise that Snake is somewhat naive, this is certainly not The Road, or even A Canticle for Leibowitz. The people we see generally cope well, in small communities, with their agrarian or small-town lives. I'm sure this could be criticised as overly optimistic, although we have no idea how long humanity has had to settle into this after the devastation, and we do see an example later on of those who have coped less well.
What McIntyre does very well is her characters, which are drawn vividly with economy and grace (a good description of her writing overall, in fact, which is sometimes quite beautiful) and the lack of explication - she mentions several times 'forever trees', only stating toward the end when the characters are looking for firewood that there were marks where someone had foolishly tried to hack into their iron-hard trunks; the way that people are trained to control their fertility; the apocalypse itself - all mentioned in the manner of things that people know and take for granted.
Just as I was starting this book I happened to hear an interview with William Gibson (on the Inquiring Minds podcast) where he mentioned that when he tried to get back into reading SF he found much of it disappointing, with the exception of the branch of feminist SF in the 1970s - Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ - and I think that I would place Dreamsnake in there, although perhaps it stands out as less obviously so than some other works. ...more
When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I de When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I decided to give it a shot and am very, very glad I did.
Andy Weir’s novel is a rollercoaster ride of an adventure story, the pacing utterly breathtaking from the beginning when the crew of the third manned Mars mission are forced to abandon astronaut Mark Watney during a rushed evacuation, leaving him for dead. The trials Watney faces to survive - initially without any contact from Earth or his crewmates, and assuming they think he is dead - make this utterly gripping but what really carries the book is that, in Mark Watney, Weir has written simply one of the the most engaging characters I have ever read. And he has to be, as 90% of the book is carried by his personal log. Watney is inventive, witty, profane and profoundly human - possibly more upbeat than is realistic for someone abandoned 225 million kilometres from home, but the book is all about striving and surviving against impossible odds, so we can forgive it that.
Weir writes well enough to genuinely make us fear for Watney’s survival as each subsequent mishap occurs, despite that fact we intellectually know he couldn't be cruel enough to write this and have his hero fail (could he?), and the other characters are all drawn excellently within their roles. While (perhaps) I cried out on occasion when some other disaster befell our stranded protagonist, these were certainly not overdone and the solutions by which he progresses always brilliantly inventive yet never stretched credulity by being superhuman, or even by being something on smart, motivated bloke (one of the sort of calibre you’d think would be required to be a Mars explorer) could come up with. I cheered for Mark Watney, and smiled and shook with fear and, regularly, laughed out loud.
All in all, if you haven’t read The Martian yet you really should. ...more
I've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it haI've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it has taken me so long to get around to it. To follow are reviews of the highlights, although all the stories were excellent.
From the first story, 'Tower of Babylon', I knew I was in for a rare treat. This is simply superb science fiction - told from the point of view of the science and technology of the time. It imagines an impossibly tall tower built of kiln-fired bricks (as sun-dried bricks would, of course, not be strong enough) to reach up to the vault of heaven and thence cut through it to reach Yahweh. Chiang describes the denudation of the land around Babylon as it has been stripped of timber and the chasm around the river from which clay has been mined for bricks, and the wooden platforms high up the spiraling ramp on which vegetables are grown by those who live part way up the tower - necessary as the trek is of several months duration to climb the immense height. He describes passing the orbit of the moon and seeing its pocked face hurtle by, and the immense heat as the orbit of the sun is passed, and the precautions taken against releasing a second deluge by inadvertently broaching one of the great reservoirs that the vault is surmised to contain.
From the view of the science and cosmology of the time, all this is reasonable and logical. Indeed, it treats the technology very much like SF from the early 20th century did (and probably still does) positing the most extremely favourable outcomes beyond the limits of what is actually achievable, in order to tell a good story and reflect back upon the ideas of the society. Just wonderful.
'Understand' is the tale of a man who, following the repair of brain damage by a new drug, realises that his intellect is growing at an exponential rate. Very reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, of course, a very well written classic SF story that deals both with how he deals with the changes but also touches upon the fact that his way is not the only approach.
'Story of Your Life' was probably my favourite. A linguist is called in to help communicate with aliens who have dropped communication devices around the world. Chiang addresses some of the classic SF ideas of alien contact - will we be able to use maths or physics as a common language? will our perceptions simply be too alien to each other to allow meaningful conversation? - and intersperses this with personal memories of the narrator. At first this seems to be purely character building for it's own sake, to give background and context and depth to the character, but about halfway through you realise that the difference in outlooks between the two species, human and extraterrestrial - and therefore how their languages are constructed - which is the thing that is confounding communication, can be bridged, and in doing so this alters the communicators. The story becomes an exploration of how language shapes our perceptions, but also upon humanity and time and loss. It left me in tears.
'72 Letters' is similar to 'Babylon' in that it takes a set of pre-enlightenment 'scientific' ideas and runs with them. In Victorian Britain, progress is based on manipulation of Kaballistic language and the constructs they can be used to animate. Again, a wonderful meshing of ideas with a superb internal consistency, used to propel a gripping tale. I would quite like to see this expanded further.
'Hell Is The Absence of God' posits a world that has proof the Judeo-Christian god exists because his angels regularly make appearances - events which can enact miraculous cures but whose violence usually also results in death and destruction - and because there is evidence of Heaven and Hell - the latter being much like mortal existence except the Hellbound are eternal removed from god, but occasionally visible in their existence. What makes the story brilliant is that it takes a set of rules - god exists, heaven can be reached through unconditional acceptance and love of him, his plan is ineffable - and shows a world that is, in effect, no less confusing and random than the godless world that we inhabit. Chiang intertwines the tales of several people in various levels of acceptance (the word 'belief' hardly seems appropriate) - including a man whose wife is killed during an angelic visitation and a woman who is is born deformed but begins to lose her faith after being healed - that show the human condition does not easily resolve to simplistic answers, no matter how much we may want it to.
The closing story, 'Liking What You See: A Documentary' is as clever as any of the other stories, but explores more deeply, perhaps, than 'Division By Zero' or 'The Evolution of Human Science'. Taking the form of clips and talking heads in a documentary, it explores the impact of a nascent medical technology that, when implemented, blinds the subject to the physical attractiveness of other people. Part of the focus is students at a school where children have had this done from infancy and much of the rest conflict between opposing sides of a culture war, one of which sees this as part of the ongoing movement toward equality and the other as warranted interference, along with non-aligned voices from elsewhere on the spectrum of opinion, and beyond. As well as exploring the "halo effect" (the tendency when you see someone who is attractive to assign to them other favourable characteristics such as intelligence, strength and moral rectitude - and if you don't think you do this, trust me, you do - Chiang also looks at how commercial advertising interests react as well as the more subtle and less concrete ways in which appearance - others and our own - matter to us. What in lesser hands could be an interesting but glib story of a single idea becomes a wonderful thoughtful gem which, like almost all the stories in this collection, will stay with me for a long time to come....more
I was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication inI was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication introduced me to some fine writers, many of whom went on to great things (or were already well-established and I had simply not come across them before).
I stumbled upon it again recently, pleased to find that the magazine is still going - now published by TTA press, having replaced their periodical The Third Alternative, rather than John Clute and David Pringle - and decided, on a whim, to take out a subscription. I’m glad I did.
Although in a smaller, glossier format than it used to be, much is as it was those years ago; a wide range of book reviews, Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn film coverage and the great David Langford’s Ansible Link, a round-up of SF news, gossip and too many obituaries. And, of course, the stories.
I had heard of none of the writers in issue 252 before now, but will definitely be seeking several of them out in the future. The opening main feature, The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson is classic Interzone fodder; a weird, bleak post-apocalypse set story about loss and holding on to hope, little more than a vignette but enough to interest me, along with the interview with Williamson, to interest me in his new novel, The Moon King.
The Mortuaries by Katherine E. K. Duckett is likewise bleak, in a US where despite overpopulation due to the rising sea levels and dwindling resources, the dead are preserved and displayed a la Gunther von Hagens. Deliberate references to Make Room! Make Room! its movie, Soylent Green.
Val Nolan’s Diving Into The Wreck is similarly about preserving the past at the expense of looking toward the future, this time about the search for the lunar module that still sits somewhere in the dusty regolith.
Sleepers by the superbly named Bonnie-Jo Stufflebeam is odd and melancholy (definitely a theme here), the narrator keeping watch over her dying father while strange half-seen creatures run through the night and fascinate and terrify everybody.
The two stand out stories are the barely (if at all) SF A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey about a family dealing with loss and the funny and indescribable Two Truths and a Lie from Oliver Buckram where a relationship that may or may not be with an alien is plotted out over instants taken from a year, each described with the titular two truths and a lie.
As this is the first taste of my return to Interzone I'm not sure whether the downbeat, somber tone struck by the majority of the stories is typical, although I do remember that was often the case before - leavened by glints of hope and humour, to be sure, but Interzone always seemed to revel in its rather bleak reputation. Regardless, I am enjoying again an Interzone reader and am looking forward to the invention and quirkiness and independence that its semi-prozine status always allowed it to cultivate. And I'm sure I shall, once again, discover many great writers herein....more