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Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: SF (page 1 of 8)

It’s your life, Jim, as we know it?

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk edited by David A. Goodman

James T KirkI still have a huge affection for Star Trek in all its incarnations and, as time goes on, although Jean-Luc Picard is the man for me, I prefer the warmer colours, the less sophisticated beeps and the cheesiness of the original series more and more over all the others. Truly ground-breaking, it was developed and aired alongside the early years of the space race.  Kirk’s opening speech, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” was lifted almost verbatim from a government pamphlet on space  produced after the Sputnik flight in 1957 and when the last episode of Star Trek‘s third season finished filming in January 1969; man had yet to reach the moon.

Star_Trek_Fotonovel_03The appetite for Star Trek related books remains huge. At the height of my addiction in the mid 1990s, I’d collected and read almost all of the available novels, reference manuals, stars’ biographies etc. I must have had over 100 Star Trek Books (and tons of other ‘stuff’). Now, just a couple of books remain – my trusty original series episode guide and my copy of Fotonovel No 3 – The Trouble with Tribbles, which I just couldn’t bear to part with.

It’s been some years since I engaged with Star Trek, other than seeing the brilliant new films and catching the odd episode on TV, but, when offered a copy of this ‘autobiography’ I couldn’t resist.

David A. Goodman is best known as head writer on Family Guy, and has written for The Golden Girls and Futurama, as well as penning a history of the Star Trek Federation. This book is written exactly like a real autobiography, complete with photo section. When the book was launched at the San Diego Comic-Con, William Shatner (whose own autobiography is brilliant reading – see here) was on hand to give an exclusive reading, and you have to approach this book with his voice in your head, complete with its inflections, pauses and jokes…

The majority of what’s in Kirk’s memoir did happen in the original series and films, as detailed by Michael and Denise Okuda, keepers of the Star Trek Chronology! The rebooted Star Trek film franchise has played with the series timeline and details to preserve the spirit of the original while freeing it from the constraints of history and doesn’t really feature here.

Goodman is able to flesh out the bits in between while also referencing many favourite episodes and scenes from the films – so we get the chance to hear more about Kirk’s childhood in Iowa, and on Tarsus IV where he witnessed a massacre of 4000 colonists on the orders of Kodos the Executioner (whom he possibly meets again later in his career – see episode #13 The Conscience of the King).  I couldn’t wait, however, for Kirk to get to Starfleet Academy and to read how he beat the Kobayashi Maru (see movies II & VI). This is a no-win training exercise involving rescuing a starship that has strayed into the neutral zone bordering the Klingon Empire. Rescue the ship and you risk interplanetary war; It is a real test of starfleet officers’ decision making abilities and ‘command character’. You can’t win – unless you’re Jim Kirk of course…

I though the test was bullshit.

I had spent the past four years preparing to find answers to the questions I would face in the Galaxy, and up until this test, every question had an answer. There was always a way to successfully complete your mission. …

I decided that the central problem of Kobayashi Maru was really about figuring out how to beat the test. I took it very personally, felt it was an insult to all the work I’d done. I just couldn’t live with the failure. So, with Ben’s help, I would reprogram the simulation. Thus, the third time I took the test, I rescued the Kobayashi Maru and escaped the Klingons.

It caused quite a stir. […] It looked like I might be expelled. […]

‘You broke the rules,’ [Admiral] Komack said.

‘No, I didn’t, sir,’ I said. ‘I took the test within its own parameters twice. You have those result to judge me on. By letting me take it a third time, you invalidated those parameters. So I used my experience with the test to beat it.’

What a cocksure young man!

James T Kirk photoGraduating from Starfleet Academy, Kirk begins his career on board various vessels, but has enough time to meet the first love of his life, Carol Marcus. A career scientist herself, they have a son David, but Kirk is an absentee father for the most part. Their careers take precedence over their relationship and they part with regret and not a little acrimony on each side. David and Carol will appear again later in Kirk’s life when he re-encounters the tyrant Khan in his quest to steal the Genesis terraforming machine Carol has been developing, (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

It is at this fairly early stage in Kirk’s career that he’ll meet Dr McCoy, the third part of the inseparable trio. It is Kirk that will give McCoy his nickname ‘Bones’ after he reattaches Lt Cmr Gary Mitchell’s arm after an incident involving poison dart shooting rodents on the planet Dimorous whilst they serve together aboard the Hotspur. Kirk is yet to be promoted to command the USS Enterprise.

You may remember the time when Kirk and Spock went back through a time portal chasing McCoy who’d accidentally got a dose of a dangerous drug and leapt through the portal while under the influence. The portal took them back to the 1930s, and it was then that Kirk met the other love of his life, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins in – The City on the Edge of Forever – written by Harlan Ellison – possibly the best episode of them all). It is this first meeting that Kirk uses in his memoir’s prologue as a poignant reminder of what’s to come.

Because of her, I would literally save history. And I would also regret it for the rest of my life.

The memoir returns to Edith Keeler at the proper time in his chronology and Kirk recounts their growing relationship and the horror at realising she has to die to prevent history from being changed. The loss of his two main relationships, but Edith’s in particular does seem to harden him a little, fuelling his reputation as a ladies man.

As the memoir ends, Kirk is looking forward to the ceremony for the launching of the new Enterprise (NCC-1701B). In an Afterword, Spock tells us (remaining enigmatic to the end), who Kirk died helping to save the Enterprise B from destruction when the hull was ruptured. This occurred in 2293, and the Nexus was responsible. It is beyond the autobiography, but we now know the Nexus preserves a version of him who is able to help Captain Picard in Star Trek: Generations, but finally dies in his last heroic act.

There is a fantastic quotation by Kirk on the back cover of the book:

“The greatest danger facing us is an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” (2266)

I looked this quote up, and was delighted to find that it heralds from The Corbomite Maneuver (the first episode of the first full series, airing in 1966, thus way before Donald Rumsfeld could possibly adapt it?). However the full quote has an extra word or two and consequently does read a little differently – this made me laugh, and reminded me how memoirs often edit the facts!

“Captain to crew: Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life-forms. You know the greatest danger facing us is… ourselves, and irrational fear of the unknown. There’s no such thing as ‘the unknown,’ only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” (The Corbomite Maneuver, 1966)

I really enjoyed reading this ‘memoir’, Goodman as Kirk’s editor exhibits a light touch with the source material, and the few Editor’s footnotes add some extra little details that neatly explain occasional digressions from the accepted facts. Just one thing belies the fact that this is a fictional memoir though – there is no index.  But I can let Goodman off that!

Reading this book, I had a smile on my face every time I got a reference – which was a lot of the time – the book is chock full of them. Although surely written primarily to feed fans’ appetites for more from the franchise, this book was entertaining and has appeal beyond the diehard fans – anyone who still has fond memories of the original series can enjoy this ‘memoir’. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
The autobiography of James T. Kirk, edited by David A Goodman (Titan, London, 2015) Hardback, 288 pages.

It's a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.


The Southern Reach Trilogy – final part

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

What began in Annihilation, follows on in Authority, concludes in Acceptance. Although I’ll give scant details of what happens below, discussing the third part of a trilogy will necessarily reveal small facts you may prefer not to know if you intend to read these books. See also my reviews of the first two parts: Annihilation and Authority.
Southern Reach Trilogy covers

The clue is in the title. In Acceptance, we have a coming to terms with the nature of Area X – but I never said it was going to be easy!

If you’ve read the first two, you’ll know that Authority ends with Ghost Bird and Control effectively breaking into Area X. We’ll come back to them in a moment, but after a prologue in which The Director, who has also gone into Area X talks directly to us, we’re back in time before Area X with Saul the Lighthouse Keeper. We meet Henry and Suzanne from the Séance & Science Brigade – a scary research organisation studying paranormal phenomena, “Prebiotic particles, … Ghost Energy” as Henry puts it. They are obsessed with the lens of the lighthouse and Saul doesn’t trust them one inch. We are also introduced to Gloria, a nine year old that plays on the beach, and Charlie – Saul’s lover. With those introductions, our cast is complete.

Acceptance jumps back and forth between the three story strands: with Saul before Area X, with the Southern Reach Authority during the period of the expeditions, and with those last unofficial explorers into Area X. We find out that the layers of conspiracy in the SRA are labyrinthine and totally bonkers in their complexity. We find out how the military used Area X – as a garbage can for space debris – sending dead satellites into the border to wink out of existence. We learn the truth about the biologist/Ghost Bird and why the lighthouse is so important. We also encounter more of the (de-)evolved creatures that made the first volume so scary:

The flesh had sloughed off, runneled down the sides of the bones, vanished into the soil. What remained was a skeleton that looked uncannily like the confluence of a giant hog and a human being, a set of small ribs suspended form the larger like a macabre internal chandelier, and tibias that ended in peculiar nub-like bits of gristle scaenged by biards and coyotes and rats.
‘Its been here awhile,’ said Control. (p34)

It’s fair to say that with its non-linear narrative, Acceptance lacks the singlemindedness that made the first two volumes so compelling. But, in order to resolve the story, there is a lot we need to know in each of the strands. This makes it more messy and you’re less able to devour it in a page-turning way as each revealed nugget leaves you trying to place it in the mix. That said, I still really enjoyed the book and think I understand how it finally reaches the end! Acceptance may be the weakest one of the three, but taken as a whole, The Southern Reach Trilogy is amazing. The first two parts have grown on me since I read them and the mind-boggling concepts between the brightly coloured endpapers of each volume have kept me thinking about them. Having read Ballard’s The Drowned World immediately before reading Acceptance also made a fascinating counterpoint – swapping one account of de-evolution for another!  (7.5/10)

Southern-Reach-UK paperback-covers

UK Paperback covers – out July 2015


I shall leave you with a little ditty that seems sort of appropriate, although the home-video accompanying the song is charmingly amateur… From 1969, I bring you Erika Eigen’s song ‘Lighthouse Keeper‘ (which was featured in the soundtrack Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, repopularised a couple of years ago in an advert for M&S for you fact-fans!)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

The Southern Reach Trilogy #2

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

AuthorityI had been planning to eke out my reading of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy over three months but, after the comments on my post about the first volume (see here), I couldn’t wait – for a variety of reasons.

  • I was hooked, of course.
  • Commenters said that the second volume wasn’t as strong as the first – I wanted to check that for myself.
  • What’s with the rabbits!

I deliberately didn’t read the blurbs of the second and third volumes, so would come to them fresh. However, given that Annihilation introduced us to the Garden of Eden-like Area X and maintained the secrets of its genesis (pun intended) throughout – there are only really two directions that a sequel can go in:

  1. To send in another expedtition. This is what happened in sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2010, and more recently in The Echo – James Smythe’s brilliant follow-up to The Explorer (which I reviewed here and here); or
  2. The sequel can eschew sending another expedition which may suffer the same fate, and try to work things out from outside the anomaly.

I had expected a variation on the former – it’s the usual approach, but instead Vandermeer has given us option two.

If you’re planning to read these books, this is where you should leave…

The Southern Reach, the agency which guards and researches Area X, is in disarray after the return of the 12th Expedition chronicled in Annihilation. The director has gone, the returnees are uncommunicative, the demoralised staff fear for their jobs. The government authorities send in a fixer, John Rodriguez, who has the childhood nickname of ‘Control’ to sort it out, he is to report to his anonymous boss only known as ‘The Voice’.

Control arrives to find that everyone is against him – well what did you expect?!  None more so than the assistant director. She is naturally protective of the director, whom we find out in the opening pages had overridden all protocols to go on that last expedition herself. She was the psychologist, and she was the one who didn’t return. Control is thrust into an office full of the former director’s papers, scribbles, notes, theories and a rather familiar quotation written on the wall behind a door. He soon finds that everyone in the organisation too has an axe to grind and each has secrets, lots of them.

Then there is the biologist, the narrator of Annihilation. Control has to find a way to get through her barriers, to unleash her memories about what happened in Area X and in a series of interviews he starts to build up some rapport. Along the way we start to build up a picture of Control the man too, through flashbacks to his childhood. With his wild Grandpa and secret agent mother he was perhaps bound to fall into a similar line of business, for they groomed him to fit.

Although I really enjoyed Authority I did have some problems with parts of it which I’ll come to in a minute.

Firstly I have to comment on ‘Control’.  I suspect the author’s choice of nickname for Rodriguez was because of the literal meaning of the word – and the subtext throughout of who (or what) is controlling whom, but I enjoyed thinking of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s boss ‘Control’ every time I saw it. It seems I can’t help but spot possible influences in these books – Control’s childhood seems rather close in a way to that of Jeff Lindsay’s avenging anti-hero Dexter in that he is channelled into becoming what he is and then controlled all the way…

The-Grand-Master-mi-high-cbbc-20559774-720-405Then there is an image that got stuck in my head and won’t let go… In the BBC children’s series M.I.High – about school-kid secret agents who are fighting the (James Bond) SPECTRE-like organisation SKULL led by The Grand Master, who has not a white cat on his lap like Blofeld but a white rabbit – called Flopsy no less! (right)  This has double significance, because of a) the rabbits on the cover – yes, we do find out why they were there, and b) because we never see The Grand Master’s face, we only hear his ‘Voice’.

All this is leading me towards saying that Authority is significantly different in style to Annihilation, and it is not the same dystopian eco-thriller that the first volume was.  Authority is all about internal espionage and Control in this book is much closer to Le Carré’s George Smiley and his mission to find the mole than the X-Files‘ Fox Mulder.  That’s OK – it worked for the most part, but the frequent intrusion of Control’s mother into things seemed unnecessary (again, it reminded me of M.I.High where young agent Blane’s mother is a double-agent working for the baddies!) How I wished he could cut those apron-strings that seemed to tie him like a puppet to her sooner rather than later.

There is a sense of world-weariness to Authority – we mustn’t forget that the expedition in the first volume was actually the twelfth, so really Annihilation could be viewed to start at my option 1 above as a sequel to an unwritten prequel if you see what I mean. Control’s ‘Smiley-like’ investigations into the Southern Reach, an organisation that had been forced, by the nature of the secrets it was guarding, to be inward-looking and ended up spiralling in on itself aren’t necessarily the stuff of great drama. I believe that many clues have been laid though, and we do finally get some action as the ending set us up for a great final act. (8/10)

From eco-thriller to spy-thriller to … what?
Will they find out the secrets of Area X?
Will they be able to ‘accept’ what they find?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, paperback.

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

annihilationHaving just read Annihilation, the first volume of Vandermeer’s series known as The Southern Reach Trilogy, I think I’m really going to enjoy the other two parts – entitled Authority and Acceptance. This trilogy was published last year – with three months between volumes. They’re lovely things too in hardback with attractive covers and bright endpapers – but what’s inside?

Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition sent in to investigate Area X – an area of an environmental disaster, monitored by a secret agency known as The Southern Reach. They’ve been monitoring it and sending in expeditions for thirty years – few return alive, and those that do are never the same as before.

The 12th expedition is a team of women: led by a psychologist, the others are a surveyor, an anthropologist and our narrator – a biologist who is never named. Their mission is to take samples, chart the land, keep journals – to help the Southern Reach understand Area X better.

The method by which they are transported through the mysterious border into Area X is unknown. The candidates for the team had all had to go through months of training and psychological conditioning including frequent hypnosis. They just awake in Area X and set off for base camp which had been set up by previous teams. There is real tension between the four women right from the start, and it’s not long before things start to go wrong.

It kicks off when they discover an uncharted tunnel, that appears as a tower built down into the ground. Some of the team start to descend including the biologist. It’s not long before they discover lush and glowing fungal growths on the walls – which releases spores onto the biologist. She doesn’t tell the others, but can immediately sense she’s changed.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall… the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat… and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

Later, the biologist realises that the spores have made her immune to the psychologist’s controlling hypnotic suggestions. It becomes clear that the psychologist has her own plan too which doesn’t include the rest of them, and the pressures on the women in this lush Eden-like world take their toll. Soon it’s just the psychologist and the biologist, and the psychologist decamps to the lighthouse – the main structure that was on the map, perhaps a remnant of this world pre-Area X. On her way to the lighthouse to challenge the psychologist, the biologist is on the canal bank when she catches a movement:

Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. … The something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen.

Before I started reading it, I had wondered whether it was going to be all conspiracy theories and X-Files style cover-ups – the rest of the series could be of course, but I was very happy to find a dystopian SF eco-thriller with horror overtones! I’ve deliberately not looked at where the story goes in subsequent volumes – the first volume does have an ending, but it can be read in several ways.

Annihilation started slowly, almost keeping us at bay as if we weren’t allowed into the minds of those who went into Area X. Once the biologist is exposed to the spores however, she changes, and this frees her to confide to us why she volunteered for a potentially fatal mission.

This novel also triggered so many memories in me of other books I’d read and programmes I’ve seen over the years:

  • thissideofparadisehd244Descending deeper and deeper into the tower reminded me of Mark Z Danielski’s wonderful and very weird novel House of Leaves.
  • The word ‘spores’ will always for me associated with the classic Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise from 1967 – in which spores from a flower make Spock experience bliss. One of my favourite Star Trek scenes came from this episode – when an infected Spock is hanging like a sloth from a tree branch, grinning away!
  • The dolphin reminded me of two things:  The Underwater Menace from the Patrick Troughton era Doctor Who, in which a mad scientist in Atlantis is operating to turn humans into Fish People – and the Doctor has to save sidekick Polly from this fate. Scared me stiff that did!  Then, more recently in Star Trek: The Next Generation -there was an episode called Genesis (1994), the crew begin to experience strange symptoms which lead to them starting to de-evolve. Captain Picard is infected and starts to become anxious and fearful and Data says he might soon de-evolve into a primate like a lemur or marmoset!

Vandermeer has created a beautiful yet dangerous world in Annihilation. I didn’t want it to stop. The tension was very well done and it was really rather creepy, I can’t wait to carry on and find out more about the controlling biological force in Area X. (8.5/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, pub in 2000 by Doubleday, 736 pages.

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