THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.

However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.

I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…

Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:

  1. The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
  2. Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
  3. So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
  4. Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
  5. Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)

Longer Review…

Crichton, who passed in 2008

So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.

The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.

So, let me just nit-pick a little…

If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.

In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.

There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.

The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.

I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!

If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.

To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.

 

 

 

 

I sort of missed it and gonna blame that on COVID19, but April 26 is the day the scifi community celebrates the Alien Franchise. Today, a little late, I’m re-watching ALIEN and feel there are some great lessons for the 2020 human host of COVID19

 

Five Lessons Ripley Can Teach Us About Living with a Hidden Enemy

 

  1. Be on guard at all times. The “man” the “government melded with the corporation” is always trying to pull one over on ya…so be wary.
  2. Take care of your own team (including yourself). The bad guys will infiltrate your team, your mind and your spaceship and they lie real good…they will lull your people into passivity and then STRIKE.
  3. Let go of sentimentality and fight till the end. Some of your team will fall. Hell, you might even fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still fight. Do not give up.
  4. Kill the demons…never, never, never give them an inch. They feed off you and will take advantage of any weakness you exhibit. They deserve no mercy, so don’t give them any.
  5. Always keep the goal in mind. Your survival and that of humanity, especially the young and the weak. Hope is everything.

The Parasite

Confession, before I write anything else, I have to say…I love Ripley and not just because Sigourney Weaver graduated from my alma mater and starred gorgeously in the original two Ghost Buster films. I love her for her character in the Alien franchise. I love Ellen Ripley because though she is that suspicious babe you wish would go away most of the time, you def want her on your team when the going gets tough. She always chooses humanity, always chooses moral good, even when it costs her everything.

If you have the stomach for it in this season of quarantine, re-watch the original ALIEN. The creature in the film is modeled after this parasite and not a virus, however, the fear of contagion is palpable and gripping (We can relate).

The ALIEN screenplay, for those who love the genre, resembles the haunted house narrative. Enclosed in a house (in this case, a spaceship) the members of a routine haul (AKA…this crew is made up of blue collar haulers) must battle an enemy determined to consume and hide. Many of the emotions parallel our current quarantine, so if you think it will help you process and release steam, watch Ripley kick ass and conquer.

Cover Art

I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.

Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:

  1. Superman Smashes the Klan
  2. The Man in the High Castle
  3. Colony
  4. An Excess Male
  5. Kindred

History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).

In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.

In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.

Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan

 

History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was  produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.

This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.

 

Josh Holloway, Sarah Wayne Callies

History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.

In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.

Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.

 

Maggie Shen King

History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.

Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.

 

Octavia Butler

History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.

KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred

 

Cover Art

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.

For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review

Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.

Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.

Yang does not sugarcoat the violence of the Klan

The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.

All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.

Worth noting:

  1. Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
  2. A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
  3. A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
  4. Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.

Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.

Superman’s Flashbacks

A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.

To buy Part 1, click here

To buy Part 2, click here

Caution: A few spoilers in this post…

Complex portrayals of the non-humanoid alien are a writing challenge for many sci-fi writers…this I tried to establish in my previous post on writing dynamic non-humanoid aliens 

  1. If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
  2. If it doesn’t speak in plain human lingo, along with not looking like a human being…it will be nearly impossible to draw in the typical audience. The alien will remain “the other” and may never transcend its designation of foreigner/alien.

The honest sci-fi writer knows that if a first contact event were ever to take place in the real world, the likelihood of an alien looking like a human being and/or speaking or thinking like a human being is slim to none.

Therefore, the imagination must soar and novels like Embassytown (China Miéville) and short stories like Arrival (Ted Chiang) come into the canon.  These are stories that give the audience an alien we might never have imagined. It’s worth looking at both examples. In this post, I will focus on ARRIVAL, the short story and the film.  Both were excellent and if you haven’t already consumed these stories, do so and do so before you read on. Here is my non-spoiler review of the film, ARRIVAL  Otherwise, I forge ahead with analysis and spoilers. You’ve been warned.

How did Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenplay writer) pull off portraying an alien that was both non-humanoid, with no human language and still give it/them so much character that went beyond “the monster” designation?

  1. They reveal the alien through the eyes of Louise Banks, the main character and the linguist who is trying to communicate with the creatures/entities. The story is told from Louise’s point of view. That makes a big difference in how the audience sees all that transpires in the narrative because Louise comes to the aliens as a learner, as curious and though the creatures are powerful and instill fear in most of the humans who encounter them, Louise is not overcome by fear. (Note: Louise is a fantastic hero, but she is no Ripley, of the Alien franchise. It’s likely she would have been an early snack for the buggers on that vessel. Louise is fierce in her dedication to her academic discipline, but unlike Ripley, my guess is she would not be as ready to use a gun to blow their brains out if they had revealed themselves to be monsters).
  2. The writers give the aliens agency, first by showing their power. These entities that have arrived on Earth are powerful, there’s no doubt about that and showing their power is not a difficult writing task. It is accomplished in a variety of well thought-out details. For starters, the vessels they have traveled in are massive. Also, these entities have traveled through space to find another sentient species, which reveals how their technology is superior to human tech. In addition, the mystery of where they have come from, their beautiful language, their form…all create an aura of their power, and I would add, their dignity.  The fact that humanity is freaking out (especially the military) is another clue about these aliens and their power. We learn about them by watching how others react to them. This is a classic writing tool, especially when a mysterious character presents itself. The audience takes its cues from the group surrounding the mystery.
  3. The writers reveal alien character by showing us how those aliens use their power. They show us by showing us the alien actions As ARRIVAL progresses, the audience begins to form an opinion about the motives of these characters. They are characters with personality. First, the audience recognizes what the aliens have not done. They have not blasted the planet to shreds, started a war or abducted any humans. In terms of what they have done, the aliens are trying (trying hard) to communicate. They readily engage when Louise begins to learn their language. The most important scene in the narrative that reveals their goodness is the moment the entities warn Louise about danger, then save the lives of Louise and her counterpart when a bomb, planted by one of the freaked-out military men, explodes in the cave-like room where they have been making slow progress on communicating. The contrast becomes clear. We see humans who are fearful and violent. We see aliens who are steadily revealing themselves and using their power to save lives.

To close this second of four posts, I’ll nerd out a little on words.

The Etymology of Our Other-Worldly Friends/Enemies

The ALIEN

Spielberg’s E.T.

In English, the word alien is derived from the Latin, alius, meaning other, and alienus, meaning belonging to another. The al in these words comes from the Proto-European root (it precedes Sanskrit), meaning beyond. Its root is different from the English word, foreigner, whose Proto-European root is the word dhwer, meaning door. The senses of the two words are different based on the roots. The foreigner lives outside one’s door, the alien is from somewhere beyond. I key into the fact that the word precedes Sanskrit. The labeling of the other is incredibly old. Human psychology is fundamentally tribal. Those outside our door or from beyond are automatically suspect. The film ARRIVAL is about this tribal fear and our inability…not just to communicate with strangers/aliens, but to communicate with one another. In the film, this becomes a large issue and almost leads to disaster.

One other term for the sci-fi consumer…E.T.

The term extra-terrestrial was coined in the modern era. It was first documented in 1953 or 1956 depending on who you believe. The initials, E.T., was made famous by Spielberg’s 1982 film.

 

The Antedean on Star Trek

A Study of Non-Humanoid Characters

(Beware. A Few Spoilers Below. For a no-spoiler review of the film, ANNIHILATION click here, for a review of the novel, click here )

Since my second viewing of the film, ANNIHILATION, I have been musing on my own sci-fi writing, thinking about how difficult it is to portray non-humanoid aliens in a novel, even more so on the screen or stage. The audience may not ponder this, but sci-fi authors grapple with the problem every time they sit down to write.

 

If you do a google image search of Star Trek aliens, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Scroll down and down and down to view many colors of skin, odd make up and costumes, but most of the images you see will be faces that look a lot like human faces. In particular, those aliens that become super villains are almost always humanoid…Klingons, for example. Why do Star Trek writers/producers seem to prefer the humanoid alien?

 

One theory emerges…

 

When telling stories, facial expressions and body language hold meaning. When my editor asks me to show and not tell in my story, I rely on movement, posture, actions as well as dialogue to show character. So, if my alien is a purple blob that does not speak human language and is flying a space vessel into lower Earth orbit for the first time and feels anxious, how do I show the reader its anxiety? My editor will scold me if I write: The blob creature was anxious as it flew into low Earth orbit? This is an example of telling and not showing. Substandard writing. She wants better and I pay her for that advice…so how does a writer manage? Maybe I decide the blob alien doesn’t have any feelings. It’s machinelike. I don’t need to show anything beyond the flying. That option is backed up by the way human beings often view the other, whether alien or human. That’s how people objectify the other.

 

It/he or she feels nothing = I feel no connection = I don’t relate = I can despise it, him, her. 

 

The not-feeling portrayal of the alien works sometimes. A number of successful sci-fi stories deliver to its audience the alien as monster, a creature or entity both sinister and destructive. The Thing as well as the first Alien films are good examples. Both follow the script of the haunted house drama. Humans are in grave danger, trying to defeat a monster that has found its way into the sacred living space. It will use up and in the process destroy all the good guys, unless the good guys destroy it/them first. The monster is objectively all evil.

 

What about non-human characters that might not be all evil?  Those are of interest to me as they are to many other sci-fi writers.

 

Back to the purple blob.

 

So, how would I portray the anxiety in my  blob character? Maybe I show the blob sweating while it nears planet Earth. Okay…that won’t work. How about a trembling blob? Would my audience interpret a trembling blob as an anxious one? For all they know, the trembling is a physical reality of a ship entering Earth orbit. You see the problem, which brings me to R2D2.

 

R2D2 on Tatooine

R2D2, not an alien but wildly different than a human, holds one answer. Recall a number of Star Wars franchise films. R2’s personality makes his mark in all of them and does so as a non human…How do the writers pull this off? How does R2 connect with the audience, which he does in a big way? (Note: in the Star Wars universe, all droids are programmed male or female. R2 was programmed “male” which is why I use the male pronoun when referring to him.) How do we know R2 has feelings when he can only bleep, squeal, whistle, spin its carapace from left to right, roll here and there and lunge back and forth on his three-wheeled legs? He doesn’t have facial expressions, arms and doesn’t even speak a human language, but the audience, especially children, feel a connection and an affection for this character. Why?

Dig deeper into the screenplay of the earliest film…Notice how humans, Luke and Leah, or another verbal and humanoid robot, C3P0 interpret for the audience what R2’s squeals, bleeps and actions mean. The audience sees and hears C3P0 responding to R2D2 in STAR WARS, A NEW HOPE and comes to understand the determined personality of this character.

 

Here’s an early R2D2 scene most of us are familiar with…the droids have just crash-landed on Tatooine and are journeying together across the planet’s desert-like dunes.

 

C3P0: What a desolate place this is…

R2: squeak, whistle

C3P0: Where do you think you’re going? Well I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky.

R2: bleep, squeak

C3P0: This way is much easier. What makes you think there are settlements over there?

R2: bleep, bleep, whistle

C3P0: Don’t get technical with me. What mission? What are you talking about?

R2: whistle, bleep, bleep

C3P0: I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way. You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile!

R2: (turns to the left and begins heading in a different direction than C3P0)

C3P0: (calls after a departing R2) And don’t let me catch you following me and begging for help because you won’t get it.

Clever writers! This is one way to give that bucket of tin a whole lot of personality…put him alongside another verbal character who will always react emotionally (even though he is a droid, who of us would deny that C3P0 is highly emotional?) and interpret bleeps and whistles for the audience. After a while, the audience doesn’t even need the interpretation. We begin to hear the difference between a happy squeak or whistle and a sad bleep.

Back to the purple blob. If another humanoid is flying co-pilot and happens to speak a human language…now I can have the co-pilot respond to the trembling.

Purple Blob: (trembling as flames erupt around the nose of its space vessel)

Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’ve never seen you tremble before, Sir.

Purple Blob: (squishes 2 hoots and a few groans out an opening on the side of its gelatinous body.)

Humanoid Co-Pilot: Well. I can see why you would be nervous. The gravity on this planet is stronger than we thought, but our heat panels should protect us.

Purple Blob: (squishes out 1 hoot)

Humanoid Co-Pilot:  I’m just glad it’s you flying a not me.

 

That’s it for now. Thursday, I’ll tackle the fantastic aliens in the film and short story, ARRIVAL.

 

This is a review without spoilers.

Don’t miss this film. ANNIHILATION is free for Amazon Prime members, or at least it was at the writing of this post.

Five Reasons to Watch ANNIHILATION

  1. The film puts forward a non-humanoid portrayal of an alien species invading our planet–always a welcome change in sci-fi land.
  2. Watch it for the tension, mystery and suspense (on par with films like Alien and The Thing).
  3. Watch it for the dynamic, mostly female cast. Realistic and flawed characters with agency and intelligence.
  4. Watch it for the beautifully imagined world. The CGI and other effects are a visual feast.
  5. I also enjoyed the creepy music. I expect it will make your skin crawl as it did mine.

 

Lena

ANNIHILATION is based on The Southern Reach Trilogy novels by Jeff VanderMeer. Watch the film and read the first book (in particular), also called Annihilation. To read my review of the first novel, click here. The film diverges enough from the novel, spoilers aren’t an issue. Both stand alone and give the consumer something different. The most important commonality in both is the main character: Lena, as named in the film. She is not named in the book, but is only known as the biologist.

 

Alex Garland wrote the screenplay based on the trilogy, but focused on the first book. He takes that novel told in the first person, a story relayed by the journal entries of the biologist, and creates something that makes sense for the screen.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes, a comet or asteroid hits Earth, near a lighthouse on the North-Eastern coast of the US. Within a few years (we learn later), an anomaly develops in and around the area where the asteroid hit. It becomes circumscribed by what the government people call, the shimmer.

The story of Lena opens with her sitting in a chair in a mostly empty hospital-type viewing room. She is dressed in scrubs, surrounded by men and women in hazmat suits, many of whom watch her through windows. One man is interviewing her about her journey into the shimmer. She is the only survivor who has returned from inside the shimmer out of a 5-person team. As he questions her, the story unfolds.

The casting of ANNIHILATION is strong, with nuanced performances by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as the psychologist and expedition leader).

This film was released on a February weekend in 2018, the weekend following the release of Black Panther. While the Marvel masterpiece sucked nearly all of the movie-going public into the theaters, one, two and three times to ooh and aah over that story as well as the graphics and the unfolding of a Wakanda power struggle, ANNIHILATION quietly drew its small and eclectic audience. It left the theaters before the Hollywood press had a chance to say much about it. In truth, even without Black Panther as competition for eyeballs, the film was rated “R”, and therefore would not have attracted the masses.

However, similar to a film like Under the Skin, this story is so creepy and alien, it pushes the imagination. The sci-fi fanatic will adore it…as should biologists, who will see their discipline elevated in a way not often witnessed on the big screen.

If you are a DVD watcher, here is a link for purchase.

ANNIHILATION dvd

I end with a favorite quote:

“Was it carbon based? What did it want? It came here for a reason. It came here for a reason. It mutated everything.”

The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?

 

Why read?

 

  1. I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
  2. I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
  3. I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
  4. I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
  5. The writing style was unique and often beautiful

 

Why avoid reading?

  1. Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
  2. Disappointing ending
  3. The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse for my tastes)
  4. Not only does VanderMeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
  5. I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing

To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.

To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.

 

The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE

 

This longer review, may contain spoilers for the first two novels in the trilogy. For those reviews, click Annihilation, A Book Review and/or Authority, A Book Review.

 

If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was introverted and anti-social. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death  She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.

 

What to say about VanderMeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:

 

In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.

 

I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?

 

Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess VanderMeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books, Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want satisfaction by the end of the third book. I don’t want to have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.

 

Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded more or less in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.

 

High praise for COLONY, Season 2. In case you have not seen the first season, this review will contain a few spoilers for those first episodes, but none for season 2. You can read my review of Colony, Season 1 here

There is a third season of this show that will come to Netflix sometime this year (a few fan blogs predict as early as April 2019), having already aired on USA Network. Beware of going onto the USA Network site. You might stumble upon a few spoilers. USA Network features a number of still shots from season 3 in their promotion of COLONY.

Short Review…

The main reasons I recommend watching Season 2 is for the superb story and the characters. The writing is spot-on, a continuation of Season 1. Let me elaborate…

  1. The characters, whom the viewer has come to admire, love and/or mistrust in Season 1, develop and continue to feel real and relatable
  2. The mystery of the invasion is explained a bit more, but the story still holds plenty of tension
  3. The narrative continues to raise important moral questions around living under occupation…The moral conflict goes deep and is unique for each character. The show highlights this well.

Long Review…

I loved all of season 2, but found the early episodes incredibly fun to watch because they are a goldmine of backstory.

Season 1 of COLONY drops the viewer into an already occupied, alien-invaded planet. The viewer attaches to the characters first and then begins watching for clues to explain what is taking place. Even the characters living through the ordeal don’t know much. Some mysteries are explained, but many remain.

What is wonderful about season 2…Three key backstory events are provided.

  1. First contact with the aliens
  2. What took place on the actual day of the invasion
  3. How the invading aliens strategized with an early group of collaborating humans

Episode 1 of season 2 begins with another day in the life of the Bowman family, but in this case, it is the day of the invasion, hours before the wall comes down, isolating the LA Bloc from the rest of Southern California. (During season 1, the audience slowly learns that similar events have taken place in cities across the globe)

Packed into this episode is a window into how Snyder was chosen to rule over the masses.

Snyder: Proxy Governor of the LA Bloc for most of season 1

Two men in suits, collaborators who know that the invasion is imminent, recruit him. They recruit him because he has embezzled from an educational institute for which he works. They recruit him not in spite of, but because his integrity is compromised.

“Even great men make two or three mistakes in their lives,” Snyder says, when confronted.

The men in suits answer: “It’s the choices you make today that will determine your future. All you have to do is say yes.”

Snyder says yes to this Faustian bargain. We already know he is an important character. The audience has followed his career, his successes and failures and the ways he has and continues to intersect with the Bowmans. His presence is constantly a tension, but always interesting.

Episode 2 is delightful as it gives a few interesting point of view shifts via some clever cinematography

  1. A view of what the Raptor’s see, those are the robotic drones (if they are truly robotic) that rule the skies on occupied Earth.
  2. A view of what lies outside the LA Bloc, including Santa Monica, but also beyond, outside of the Urban landscape
  3. A peek into the alien mindset and culture…I can’t say more without a spoiler

I’m looking forward to season 3, which might come to Netflix as early as April, but sad because USA Network has confirmed its end. Three seasons of COLONY and no more. That’s the bad news…the good new is…

Season 3 of COLONY is being touted as outstanding and possibly better than both the first and second. I look forward to watching it and following my binge watching, I’ll be sure to post a review here.

 

 

 

 

Book 2 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

AUTHORITY, by Jeff VanderMeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.

First,  A Little Data About this Book Review

  1. I listened to the novel via Audible and felt it was difficult to follow and a little boring, this after loving the Audible version of ANNIHILATION.
  2. AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
  3. I have not yet read ACCEPTANCE, but have been told by a trusted scifi-reading friend that the trilogy is worth reading overall

The Short Review. 

I Give this Book a Semi-Enthusiastic yes. Read AUTHORITY for these reasons:

  1. The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
  2. It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
  3. The narrator character is the protagonist and insists on being called Control. Though I’m not fond of him, he establishes a relevant relationship to someone who has survived Area X.
  4. The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.

Longer Review

So…if AUTHORITY was a stand alone novel, I might not write a stellar review and I would give up on reading any other VanderMeer novels, but since I loved ANNIHILATION so much, I will read on. If you’re curious about my review of the first Southern Reach novel, click here for the ANNIHILATION REVIEW

In AUTHORITY, the narrator is a male who calls himself Control. His birth name is John Rodriguez. He is the new director of the Southern Reach. In an early introduction, he insists that his colleagues call him Control. I realize the title of this novel is AUTHORITY and that the book is much about who has authority in the confusing situation that is taking place in and around Area X. This was another reason I was annoyed by John Rodriguez’s moniker. It felt like the author was trying to make me think in a certain direction and less about a person. I didn’t like that.

Control seems like a weirdo, socially. I was not fond of his narrative voice, nor his behaviors or leadership. Control does not compel me. I feel a distance from this character that I think I’m supposed to feel compassion for. Since the story is being told by him, in the first person, I can’t get away from him. I would have stopped listening had I not been told by a friend that the final book and the whole arc of the three books make sense when you finish them.

Despite me not feeling a connection to this narrator character, I can see why author, VanderMeer, changes perspective in this book. He wants the reader to receive another view into Area X. That which is mysterious and difficult to describe, much less understand in Area X, is seen from another angle in this novel. Control provides the US military/intelligence/bureaucratic angle as well as some recent history.

Given that the reader knows the content of ANNIHILATION, that Area X has consumed a number military and government expeditions, the background is helpful to the larger story.

But, for me, the main silver lining around this new narrator was that the reader finally received a physical description of the narrator and protagonist from the previous book.

“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, green eyes, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family…”

This description does make me bummed about the filmmakers of ANNIHILATION casting the biologist for the cinematic story as a white woman (Natalie Portman) with zero (or near zero) Asian heritage. Bummed for many mixed-race actresses out there who did not get this part.

I will listen to the next book, AUTHORITY, on Audible. I hope to enjoy it more than this middle novel.

Click here to buy ANNIHILATION, Bk 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

Click here to buy AUTHORITY, Bk 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

Click here to buy ACCEPTANCE, Bk 3 of The Southern Reach Trilogy