Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is about a weird area on the forgotten coast in a future with nameless bureaucracies instead of specific governments. With all the namelessness what is named is important. In the first book, Annihilation the names were given to the specifics of the environment the biologist was witnessing. In Authority we go with the replacement director into the bureaucracy that sent the expeditions in the first book. By the third book, Acceptance, we’re discovering the depths of what came before and putting names to the weirdnesses.
While each book has delved into the mystery of Area X, the characters are the reason to keep reading. I found that Acceptance, because it had worked up to four viewpoint characters in three timelines, was a bit less drag-me-along I need to finish this last night than the first two. They were all really good, but if you want to stop after the first I think that’d be okay too.
I wasn’t sure what my reading life would be like after my kid was born (a little less than 4 weeks ago now). So far, I’ve been getting through things all right, though the dead time when your job is simply holding a screaming grub trying to let it be quiet again isn’t as conducive to in-depth concentration as I’d prefer. If I could listen to audiobooks I’m sure that’d work a bit better, but someone would always be distracting me. In any case, huzzah for ebooks that let me turn bages by tapping something that’s always lying flat where I put it.
So I kind of hated George Alec Effinger’s Those Gentle Voices, even though I liked one of the things it was doing. I really expected more because I loved his Marid Audran series. My main problem with it was that the first two chunks of the book set it up as a serious book of space exploration and possible first contact with alien life, then once the astronaut scientists arrived at the planet they were looking for they behaved like six-year-olds without proper supervision.
If it had been set up like a Stanislaw Lem story (especially something like the Trurl and Klapaucius stories in The Cyberiad) the completely stupid lack of planning for a first contact mission wouldn’t have bothered me nearly so much. The “scientists” set themselves up as god-kings on this planet on which culture evolves ridiculously quickly and they have insane amounts of material resources apparently. If it was being told more like a fairy tale, fine, but set up as science fiction it was constantly breaking my sense of disbelief.
What I did like is the structural thing where the book started with PART TWO, then things proceeded normally, until you reached the final section which was PART ONE and totally explained some of the oddities that started the book off. (Also, this was the first book I remember reading where there was a librarian character who is just antagonized by a protagonist for no reason and with no resolution, so that might have affected my judgment.)
Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.
Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.
The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.
What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.
The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.
All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.
Photo Credit: Gastown Railyards by Evan Leeson
Railsea is China Miéville’s a story about a boy named Sham who is working on a moletrain. A moletrain is like a whaling ship, but in the world of Railsea, there are no seas like we know them, only the loose earth that terrifyingly dangerous creatures (like moldywarpes and antlions) burrow through. This earth is crisscrossed by an impenetrably tangled network of rails that require expert navigation and track switching. The trains navigating the railsea are hugely various, some powered by sails, some by steam, diesel or even fusion. Out in the dangerous earth there are islands and communities, and many wrecked trains to salvage. There’s also the upsky which is poisonous and filled with alien beasts that sometimes drop inexplicable bits to earth for people to find. It’s all kinds of awesome.
Sham begins the story as a mediocre doctor’s apprentice, serving a captain in search of her philosophy, a giant ivory mole named Mocker-Jack that took her arm. Miéville does this thing where this creature she’s hunting is explicitly philosophical at the same time that it’s a physical beast that could crush a train. It’s directly inspired by Moby Dick but is wildly divergent from Herman Melville’s story.
Strangely enough not everyone likes China Miéville’s use of language. It’s filled with words that are made-up but make sense and I am a fan. The book is published as YA and while the language is intricate and ornate, it will knock the right reader’s socks off. Comparison-wise, it’s got similar themes to Ship Breaker, but the language is less straight-forward. The plot is stronger and more direct than Mechanique, which had a similar kind of language/mood.
I loved the hell out of this book and am only sad it’s over and I’ll have to wait for Miéville’s next one.
Scott Chantler’s The Northwest Passage is a comic about fur traders and family and lots of action in Rupert’s Land back in 1755. Charles Lord, the governor, is heading back to England but before the supply ship arrives, one of his old Cree friends ends up shot and brought into camp, with tales of a vision of death. Then the French show up and take over the Company’s fort, Lord escapes into the wilderness, family relations are strained, and he gets the old gang back together again to retake what’s his. This is historical fiction with a very action-movie bent to it. The characters are all made up and there is a bit of Die Hard-ishness, especially in the final big set piece. The dialogue wasn’t great (very pulpy), but the clean cartoony style almost makes you overlook the amount of violence going on in the story. It was a fun read, but nothing earth-shattering.
Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth is a creative-commons licensed novel about a 15-year-old Southern gentleman and his slave and his dog and Edgar Allan Poe who go on an Antarctic expedition to the centre of the Earth. So yes, this is a continuation of my December Antarctica story binge, but I swear I didn’t know ahead of time.
It’s kind of a rollicking adventure tale that takes place back in the 1830s and is written in that sort of voice, but by a late-twentieth century writer. It’s startling how much of a difference that makes to the readability. It’s recognizably written in that impossible science style of exploratory wonder and 19th century diction but doesn’t require the same amount of reading through the gratingness. I’m going to have to come back to this to figure out how he pulled off the trick.
Not to say it’s a perfect book. Any of my difficulties with it were made up for in the afterword where some of the science and history behind the hollow earth theory (and the particular oddities of the construction in this tale) were laid out as proof of how this is a true story. Very neat.