I originally planned this Sci-Fi Saturday post as a positive review of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, but Burns really nailed it about plans “gang aft agley.” I’ll tell you right now I bailed about halfway through the second book because I wasn’t enjoying the read, was utterly bored by the story, and had found VanderMeer’s writing style annoying from the beginning.
So this isn’t a positive review, but I’m willing to credit much of the lack of connection on my taste, both with regard to content and to writing style. The author and the trilogy are held in high regard, and I don’t at all dispute the quality of the storytelling. It’s just not for me.
The truth is, I’m not a big fan of literary surrealism. I’m usually suspicious of the stink of fish oil. Surrealists emote into their art, and I’m never sure whether any skill or talent is involved. Emoting is trivial and easy; animals do it. It’s craft and talent I revere, and along those lines I think some surrealists are counting on an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of thing (and I love being that kid).
Appreciating ability should, I suppose, incline me towards writers like VanderMeer, but then we’re back to my distaste for literary surrealism. I’m more open to it in visual art forms (although surrealist dance tests that tolerance). All visual art is more expressed emotion than narrative; it’s surreal narrative that I have trouble with. (That tends to include movies despite their visual nature.)
I admit the trouble is all mine. I just don’t see the point of having to listen to or read a narrative that doesn’t connect intellectually — that isn’t really a narrative — but is supposed to invoke feels in me. The confusion of life is one of the things I read to escape. I don’t need it, or want it, from my stories.
Call me provincial, but I want characters I can understand. I don’t have to identify with them, but I want to understand them and their actions. Characters in surreal narratives often seem random to me and not real. It’s interesting in art, as cubism or abstraction of the human form, but I don’t enjoy it in a narrative. It makes reading work, not pleasure.
All of which can be overlooked, forgiven, even embraced, if the author tells an engaging story with a satisfying arc. Some mystery or ambiguity to leave the reader thinking is fine, but the meal has to fulfill. When it doesn’t, it becomes a stylized imitation — nuevo cuisine.
What I decided halfway through book two of this trilogy is that, firstly, I wasn’t enjoying the flavors that much to begin with, but secondly, I was increasingly doubting a satisfying resolution. (A correspondent who read all three indicated my doubt was well-grounded.)
Two other factors lead to bailing. Firstly (or thirdly, I guess), the realization the story was more modern-day fantasy horror than science fiction, and I’m picky about fantasy. Humor is important. A good narrative is important. Good characters are important. A ripping good yarn is important. None of those elements are present here. Lastly, the half of book two I read was all talk and flashbacks, no action. Nothing happened!
It takes a lot for me to bail on a book once I get into it. Especially if I’m at least a book into a series. I managed to read all five of the Stephen Baxter Long Earth books (but wasn’t particularly glad I did). I got through the first of the Becky Chambers Wayfarers books before bailing (I really didn’t care for it). Not sure if I’ll read the third book in the Lindsay Ellis Noumena series (I loved book one; book two hugely disappointed). I’m still down with the S.L. Huang Cas Russell series, though; I’ve liked all three so far.
Three books comprise the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, all published in 2014. I admire his strategy of releasing all three books in short order (over eight months). Science fiction fans have long gnashed their teeth waiting for the next installment of some series (Martin’s Game of Thrones perhaps setting a record in that area, but it’s not new to us).
The first book was adapted into the 2018 movie, Annihilation, with Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodreguez, and Tuva Novotny. The movie is absolutely a case of a film adaptation rising above its source material. It captures the moody surreal flavor of the book but contains a coherent generally satisfying narrative. And what it lacks in ripping good yarn-ness, it makes up for in sheer visual appear; it’s worth seeing just to see it.
And, honestly, for all my kvetching, and in spite of a writing style I don’t enjoy, the first book was okay. I was feeling mostly positive about the trilogy after reading it and looked forward to book two.
But book two has no action, does have a major thread about office politics, repeats many of the same protagonist beats with a character weirdly similar to the one in the first book (in terms of being an unlikeable mental mess), and did I mention has no action! And absolutely nothing to move the story along (let alone provide any answers).
Maybe there’s a payoff in the second half, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I didn’t care about the characters, didn’t foresee much satisfaction, and wasn’t enjoying the ride. … Felicia, I’m out.
The story is about Area X, a mysterious impenetrable zone, roughly 70 miles by 80 miles in size, that appears in an unnamed coastal area. Its origin and purpose are unknown. When the first book begins, the zone has existed for about 30 years.
In the movie the five-woman crew, the supposed 12th expedition sent to explore, just walk into the “shimmer” — named for the visual effect. In the book, there is no visual effect, but anything that touches the boundary disappears and is never seen again. There is an equally mysterious portal (with mysterious swirling lights) that is the only entryway.
A big aspect of the book is that the four-woman crew are known only as “psychiatrist,” “biologist,” “anthropologist,” and “surveyor.” The book floats a rationale about labels forcing focus on function whereas names are attached to complicated freighted histories seen as a distraction. And as possible information for the unknown putative “enemy” in the zone if said enemy can read human minds (and events suggest that, yeah, maybe that’s a good precaution).
Not that any of their precautions have done a bit of good. Over the 30 years there have been lots of expeditions that tried many different things hoping to, if not get some answers, at least survive. That the book/movie crew is (only) the “12th” expedition is a morale-boosting lie. In fact, this crew has been hypnotized to not notice some of the more disturbing aspects of the situation (as well as to help them not panic).
The first book is from biologist’s point of view. In fact, it’s framed as a retelling of events. Earlier expeditions were lost, sometimes in horrific ways, but members of the most recent one returned. Mysteriously. They just suddenly showed up (although no one saw them pop in) in locations well-known to them, usually their homes. They can (or will) give no account of how they got there, and they have almost nothing to report about their time in the zone (“it was fine; everything was nice”).
In fact, biologist’s husband was on that earlier expedition, and he just showed up one evening in their home. Later these returned team members developed sudden cancers and died. The biologist’s husband died (in the book; in the movie they end up together). People who knew them before described the returned ones as “not all there.”
So book one is the biologist’s retelling of the “12th” expedition. She reappeared in a vacant lot that she loved (for reasons). The police found her, so she ended up back under “care” at Area X facilities.
Book two involves John Rodriguez, who goes by “Control” (thus mirroring the first book’s protagonist known by a label not a name; deep). He’s former field operative sent in to fix the Area X organization, which is apparently crumbling because no progress has been made, the zone is just sitting there not taking over the world, budgets are shrinking, and everyone is demoralized. Great plot for a gripping adventure.
What bugs me identically about both characters is how much mental churning goes on. Dialogs take forever to read, because every line of dialog triggers three or four paragraphs of agonizing mental digression or some flashback. I sometimes had to go back and read just the quoted lines to get a sense of the conversation.
And everything they see or think has so much portent and meaning, usually something depressing or fearful. The writing is over-detailed and downright claustrophobic. There is so much over-thinking and over-analyzing that there’s no narrative flow or energy. Sure as hell no fun or whimsy in sight.
With a lot of this tortured stream of consciousness stuff I find myself thinking, “OMG, get over yourself!” When it comes to all this personal BS, the thing is, I really don’t care. We all got stuff; yours isn’t special. In fact, this stuff is as old as humans and stories. I suppose it’s exactly the sort of thing that attracts some readers.
To me it’s just more of the same thing I get from real life, so I’ve never seen the point. I read science fiction for ideas and adventures and to see intelligent minds react to and handle interesting problems. If I want reality, it’s right outside and all over my newsfeeds. I read to get away from it!
Bottom line, thumbs down on this one, a Meh! rating, although I confess it might be entirely due to my personal taste.
Speaking of bailing on series (and of waiting forever for subsequent books), long ago I was reading the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, and it’s one of the first such I gave up on after deciding I’d lost interest. I think I got as far as book eight or nine, but if I recall correctly, it was book six that planted the seed of doubt, because it was a big fat book in which nothing happened.
Stay unsurreal, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.