Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the story of a group of four women investigating an apparently post-apocalyptic part of the world, Area X. It is an expanse of wildness, separated it seems from the rest of world by a man-made border. The area may once have been populated but now the natural and supernatural world is taking it over, it’s history never fully explained.

There have been 11 previous excursions into Area X, to get information we think, although the purpose of the excursions isn’t entirely clear. It’s clear that for at least the last two, if not more, many people died whilst there or made it back but their psyche was shot afterwards.

We experience the 12th expedition through narration by a female biologist who goes into Area X with a psychologist (who has powers of hypnosis), a surveyor and an anthropologist (we never know their names). She signed up for the expedition it transpires, in part because she’s a biologist who’s fascinated by the wildness of nature, and in part because her husband was on the 11th expedition and came back as a shell.

Nature abounds in the abandoned Area X, but beyond the lush wildness it has two significant features – an obscure tower or tunnel, and a lighthouse.

The tunnel is the source of much fascination for the biologist, and they begin exploring it at once. They discover it continues for a long way down and, intriguingly, appears to be an organism – alive, growing, pulsating – with organically growing writing along the walls. In reviews of Annihilation there are frequent references to Lovecraft, Ballard and Poe, and you can see these influences in this mysterious supernatural being.

After things start to go very wrong in the tunnel, the biologist makes her way to the lighthouse where she finds the psychologist and an archive of the previous expeditions’ notes, including her husband’s.

It’s hard to talk about the plot, as the core of Annihilation is less plot and more atmosphere – a disturbing build of tension and uncertainty about the biologist’s co-workers, the secrets behind Area X and most of all the terrifying and uncanny unknown at work in the tunnel and beyond.

And equally interesting, Annihilation is also an excellent character study of the biologist – a woman captivated by nature not people, who longed to sit by a pond and observe, and who struggled in a relationship for years with a man who was extroverted and craved company.

“This premonition of violence made little rational sense, and yet it came to me too easily, almost as if placed in my mind by outside forces.”

Jeff Vander Meer, Annihilation

Neil Gaiman – Anansi Boys

It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Neil Gaiman’s writing so good – it’s something to do with a gripping plot, shifts between the real and the magical, the likeable characters and, in this book anyway, the fact that things frequently work out for the best in the end.

Fat Charlie is the main protagonist, and it turns out is the son of the trickster god Anansi, which he learns only on his father’s death. He also learns he has a brother, Spider, who is a magical hedonist able to bend people to his will. And what he later learns, after visiting the realm of gods, is that Spider is in fact half of himself, his magical self, separated from him by the gods.

The plot develops after Spider visits Fat Charlie in London and takes over his life, sleeping with his girlfriend, Rosie, and causing problems at his work, with Charlie’s boss implicating him in fraud and money laundering that his boss has been committing for years. It culminates with Fat Charlie, Spider, Rosie, the boss and Daisy, an off-duty policewoman that Charlie has fallen for, all on a Caribbean island for the denouement.

It’s a beautifully plotted and written book, that makes you smile because it’s so good natured, relying on the power of the story and the characters, without stooping to grizzly deaths or sex to keep you hooked. At times it feels a little too nice, a little forced – like the bad things that happen wouldn’t be taken so lightly by the characters, that they would leave their mark more fully – but the sense of otherworldliness allows you to skip over them, just like the characters themselves do.

And there are some great scenes – not least Spider dining in a quiet restaurant with Rosie when suddenly Rosie transforms into a flock of black birds that peck and thrash and attack him, with the apparition of Rosie conjured by a bird woman-god that Fat Charlie has enlisted to get Spider out of his life…

The Time Machine – HG Wells

What a fantastic book this is, managing to unfold a gripping and hugely imaginative plot whilst introducing some great ideas about the dangers of technological advance.

The story is pretty straightforward. An inventor and experimenter creates a time machine and travels forward tens of thousands of years. When he arrives he discovers the apparent humans – the Eloi – inhabiting the planet are small and foolish. After some time there his time machine disappears, and at that point he discovers underground-dwelling creatures, Morlocks, that seem to have stolen his machine and pose a danger to the Aloi. He befriends a female Eloi – Weena – and then embarks of the discovery of his machine, a struggle against the Morlocks and a return to Victorian Britain.

The plot is good but even better are two ideas that the narrator – the story is told in first person by the narrator – raises.

One is a pretty Marxist take on a dystopian future – he wonders if the Morlocks are the workers, forced to live and toil underground for the ruling Eloi class.

And he wonders this because of a second more interesting theory he proposes: that the Eloi are future humans; they are lacking in intellect and skills because technology has developed so fully that they no longer have any need to do or think anything for themselves and so have degenerated into a race of simpletons. It’s a great idea, and one that is surely more relevant than ever in a world where robotics, automation, AI and technological capabilities are taking away the need for human agency more and more.

Spare and Found Parts – Sarah Maria Griffin

This is a fine piece of science fiction, rich in detail, that slowly subverts ideals around work and family.

It focuses on Nell, a teenage girl, in a world where advanced technology is no longer allowed after it caused an epidemic resulting in people losing lives and, significantly, limbs.

After ‘the Turn’ – as its known – Nell’s Dad becomes a revered doctor / scientist who has created prosthetic limbs that allow people to live as they used to.

Everyone needs to make a ‘contribution’ to the city, to get it back on its feet. Neil’s friend Ruby is focused on fashion, her irritant-stalker-friend Oliver on prosthetics too, but Nell is unsure. Then she stumbles across a mannequin hand that gives her the idea to build a boy; and, after finding computers from before the Turn, she rigs up a functioning android called Io.

At the heart of the book appear to be two very conservative ideas – the nuclear family and work – but both are subverted by the end. Nell’s Mum has died and her father looks after her when not working. But it appears that actually her Dad, Julian, is a duplicitous plagiarist and a thief in his work, and her Mum, Cora, was so obsessed with scientific work that she effectively brought on her own death. Neither work nor family come out of this too well.

It’s a good plot, a nice subversion on the themes, but the book’s really brought alive by the detail of Nell’s cobbling and creations – limbs, wires, screws, all the stuff of basic electronics and (I guess, fantasy prosthetics) that give it a real hands-on feel.

“Out beyond the glistening green of the forest the city cracked open with light against the darkened sky, a pomegranate with a split gut, all jewels.”

Sarah Maria Griffin, Spare and Found Parts

The Independence Patch – Bryan Camp

This an intriguing and amusing short story exploring the future of humankind by an author I hadn’t come across before.

Donny is teenager who like most of his kind is fed up with school, hates his teachers and wants to have sex. The difference is he’s part robot, part human – ‘technically a cyborg’ as his Mum tells his teacher.

It’s unclear quite why he’s a cyborg (though his mother is a hacker activist which might explain it), but he’s not alone, there are others living among standard humans too. But it’s tricky for him. He’s constantly plugged into the internet and he can download information constantly, making his classes and exams a joke. He can be precise about everything because he is himself technology.

What the technology doesn’t help with, though, is negotiating his relations with other people. In particular he has a relationship with a girl who dumps him, and he struggles to deal with it, as any young kind would do. So, on his 18th birthday he downloads an ‘independence patch’, which allows him to take control of the technology inside him – yet even then it doesn’t help him understand other people.

The story is fun to listen to (it was on the Lightspeed podcast). Donny is a good character, an ultimately kind but typical teenager who finds himself in some amusing scenes with his teacher. But the story also raises good questions about the possibilities and limits of technology: it might be useful but can technology allow us to deal with human emotion or just raw data, facts?

For me, I’m not so sure that the hard data / soft emotion distinction really holds up. As technology develops, with AI and the like, surely it will be possible to both understand sentiments on a meta level through data and read emotion on an individual level, meaning that we / cyborgs will be able to predict and react to what people’s emotions.

Either way this is a great story that makes you think.

Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

“Of course we have a waiting list. Don’t believe everything you hear about hell. Next time you run into some anti-hell propaganda, consider the source… And remember, we persecute only the guilty, which puts us one up on most other institutions.”

Andrew Wyvern (the devil) in James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter  

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

This is both a pro and anti war book, as well as a gripping story about a young boy who becomes a great leader at the expense of nearly all else in his life.

It’s a world supposedly at war with aliens from other planets – the buggers – and as a child Ender is picked as as a possible leader who can win the war once and for all. He is subsequently taken to training academies and space stations where generals and teachers make things harder and harder for him. He keeps on excelling at battles – which are brilliant to read – through unconventional yet highly effective strategies. But the cost is friends, family, happiness.

He keeps on training and training until late in the book there’s an excellent and unexpected twist. After that he has to find a new role for himself as a much-loved leader and hero.

There’s also a slightly odd sub-plot around his brother and sister, Peter and Valentine, who somehow establish themselves as influential voices in political debate despite being children.

There’s a strong anti-institutionalisation theme to the book: Ender’s life is lived within unexplained rules and laws of the kind that young people experience all the time.

And I’ve heard it said that this is an anti war book – about people following orders and killing millions of unknown people in distant lands – and it certainly has elements of that. But it’s just as pro-war, with the games and training made to sound incredible and Ender becoming a venerated leader and hero. There’s a nice ambiguity to the book.

Revival – Stephen King

A readable story of one man’s life, a gradual piece of horror and a psychoanalytic revelation, this book shows why Stephen King is such a popular author.

It begins when Jamie Morton is a young boy in small town America and the Reverend Charlie Jacobs is the new and well-loved minister in town. He experiments with electricity and manages to heal Jamie’s brother’s muteness through some weird science channeling ‘secret electricity’. But after a fatal accident involving his family, brilliantly described by King, Jacobs turns from God, blasting out a blasphemous sermon in the pulpit before leaving town.

Flash forward twenty or so years and Jamie, a musician now, is in a bad way, hooked on heroin. He meets Jacobs randomly who, using his alternative methods, cures him of his addiction. From there Jamie’s ambivalent relationship with Jacobs begins; he tracks him, now a healer preaching with a ‘carny’ show, bring in lots of money through incredible acts of electric healing that have cured hundreds maybe thousands of people. But Jamie discovers that there are often psychological aftereffects to a healing by Jacobs, sometimes lethal, often disturbing.

It comes to a head when Jamie joins Jacobs at a final experiment to discover what lies beyond the living, which they do in an page-turning scene on top of Goat Mountain, where flashes of lightening power Jacobs and he connects with a dark world beyond ours, one that haunts Jamie for the years he las left.

It’s a fantastic allegory for the kind of tumult and horror that resides just beneath the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and is almost psychoanalytic in its revelations, though whether King would see it like that I don’t know. The contrast between the realism of much of the novel – which reads at times like something by Richard Ford or someone – and the supernatural horror of the culminating scenes has an odd effect, though it’s this which ultimately makes it so readable and so disturbing.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for good reading!

Haruki Murakami – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Having only read Norwegian Wood, this was quite a surprising read. It was Kafka-esque in the sense that the main character was led from one action to the next with no understanding of why and little control over his destiny. And it had a strong dose of science fiction and fantasy.

It turns out the narrator is a ‘shuffler’ and the last survivor of an experiment by a science professor. He meets the Professor and his unsocialised daughter and they embark on a quest beneath what is and isn’t contemporary Tokyo city – a quest at the end of which he is destined to die. The protagonist accepts his fate with a shrug and humour in the firm tradition of a hard boiled hero.

This alternates with an alternative ‘perfect’ world in which nothing happens, which it turns out is in the mind of the protagonist. It’s a slow, eerie fantasy world, a village, where he is detached from his shadow, and which ultimately he rejects for the uncertainty and danger of an imperfect but real world beyond.

It’s a strange book. Hard to follow and dragging occasionally, particularly in the alternative village. The last 100 pages pick up, as the theme becomes clear and the plot quickens. The book contains interesting ideas and a few gripping moments but ultimately it is the characters – the protagonist, his librarian girlfriend, the Professor’s daughter – who are fun, readable, well characterised and make it a strong story.

Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle

PKD-high_castle-penguinclassics

Read July 2014

An interesting book with a complicated and obscure message. It’s the story of a world in which the Nazis and Japan won the war, and split the world, with the US being a kind of occupied buffer in the middle. It follows a number of people: Childan, who sells ‘authentic’ American wares to Japanese and German officials wanting to own a bit of the old world; Juliana, an American woman living a precarious existence who eventually goes on the search for the author of an underground book about what would be like if the Germans had lost the war; and a number of Japanese and German high officials who are trying to govern in a paranoid and unstable totalitarian regime.

It’s hard to say that there’s a moral to the story, but there is a theme: fictions. Through the book, nobody is who they say they are, nobody says what they mean and everything is obscured by the layers of lies, pretence and bluffs that are essential to propping up a totalitarian regime. It’s more subtle than Orwell’s 1984 though. It’s not simply that there is a totalitarian power that everyone knows is horrible but can’t speak about, or that they are indoctrinated unquestioning dupes. It’s that the people believe the fictions even whilst they see evidence to the contrary and are constantly unsettled and decentred by it.

Juliana goes near-crazy because she is travelling with a man she knows is lying to her, and is in fact a Nazi using her to get to the underground writer; Hawthrown, the underground writer, is reputed to be safely secured in a high castle (of the title) but is in fact living a normal suburb without any obvious threat or concern; Childan realises that his Japanese clients have seen through the sham that is the mass production of ‘authentic’ US wares but that they continue to pretend to themselves that they are real nevertheless; a senior Japanese official kills some Nazi thugs in his office but the Nazi’s pretend he didn’t to maintain order; Another senior official buys authentic wares from Childan because, though he doesn’t believe they have any traditional or spiritual value, he wants to believe; and in the end it transpires that the underground book may in fact be true, the Germans and Japanese lost the war, but the world continues to act otherwise.

The opaque nature of the story is amplified by the style of writing. To reflect the difficulties of communication between people from different countries, the dialogue is written in pidgin English, which strengthens the feeling that this is a world that is hard to to understand.

As a book it’s like its theme: obscure, hard to see through, difficult to get any clarity on.

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville

UnLunDun

Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.