Thursday, 14 December 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

With the preceding novel, Authority, closing in calamity, the final volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Acceptance, has the task of picking up the pieces and arranging them into a completed whole. Which, it half-does, and it half-doesn’t. It takes places partly in the aftermath of Authority, following Control and the steadily changing Biologist into Area X. But also partly in the form of filling in the backstories of Control’s predecessor, the Director, and her childhood acquaintance, the Lighthouse Keeper, both of whom have been significant characters, or presences, in the preceding volumes. Again, the novel does atmosphere well, and again it’s a fairly propulsive read. But, as I feared previously, it’s also more than a little bit flaky on clearly wrapping things up. By the end, it remains indistinct as to whether Area X is a protected part of Earth, not part of Earth at all, under the watchful gaze of Space Aliens, a consciousness-is-everywhere superorganism, or what. That none of these disparate explanations can be ruled firmly in or out indicates how deftly Vandermeer steers the novel towards revelation but never gets there. So enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying. Sometimes keeping the mystery in place works, especially in single volume books, but where a mystery has been teased extensively, and over several volumes, as here, this can be more than a little frustrating. But, despite this, I’d still recommend the trilogy – although I’m as yet unconvinced that it will make a successful leap to the screen, a journey that it now appears to be making.

#book #sciencefiction

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

A crime genre classic this time with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 1965 introduction to their Swedish detective, Martin Beck. Remarkably fresh despite its age, with all of the conventions that we now take for granted already firmly in place (copious procedural detail, dogged but depressed detective, etc.). Though it still surprises with a realistically paced resolution to the crime, as well as a rather legally-dodgy denoument.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

After an opening volume spent entirely within the otherworldly Area X, Jeff Vandermeer's successor novel, Authority, steps back to the Southern Reach facility at its border.

There, a new director - referred to by his new staff as Control - picks over the pieces of the mission described in Annihilation. Its leader, the Psychologist, was the previous director, who seemed to know more about Area X than reports record. And its only survivor, the Biologist, is standoffish, and doesn't quite appear to be what she seems. Control's investigation gradually uncovers the truth on both, a creeping derangement driven by Area X, as well as secrets from his own history and that of his family. All of which takes place as Area X seems poised.

While less of the horror of Area X seeps into this volume, it has some unnerving moments as its protagonist unravels some of Area X's mysteries. And while some unravelling takes place, the author does a grand job whetting interest while keeping Area X shrouded. A great read, though it does set a high bar for its concluding volume. Of which, more anon.

#book #sciencefiction

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

Though I had minor reservations about the film #Arrival, there was good enough about it to make me track down this volume of short stories by its author, Ted Chiang. As well as the source of Arrival - which is pleasingly similar and different to its adaptation - the tales take in the construction of the Tower of Babylon to reach Heaven, a steampunk tale grounded in performationist biology, and a faux-documentary on a technology that masks the ability to perceive human beauty so that users don't judge people by their appearance. Quite a spread, and all rather unique and enjoyable - I'll definitely be digging deeper into Chiang's back-catalogue.

#book #sciencefiction #shortstory

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

An early title from Chris Beckett. It posts an alternative present in which immigration officers actually police the transit of people from alternative universes. Fuelled by an inexplicable drug called "slip", people pass through the novel's present day to either seek a better life, escape their crimes or to promulgate violent religions from their own universes. Starts well, has lots of interesting ideas, but its narrative doesn't really work on the end, and it kind-of fizzles out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an expanded version of a short story that did work, but I just don't think Beckett knew where he was going with it when he started. Still, not a terrible read at all.

#book #sciencefiction

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Book tower depleted by one!

More novella than novel, this is the first Greg Egan I've read in a while. His Orthogonal series was just too tedious to stick with. However, this is him back on form with a kind of "whodunnit" set in his memory uploading future. Except that the detective is the uploaded personality, and he's trying to find out what, and why, his recently-deceased original left out of his memories. Very enjoyable, if over all too quickly.

#book #sciencefiction #gregegan #kindle

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Reading pile depleted ... It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler ...

It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler. This one is part of a series of books by contemporary authors that retell Shakespeare plays - specifically The Taming Of The Shrew here. I rather liked this, though it does that trick whereby at some critical point it flashforwards to its conclusion, thus kind-of avoiding some narrative thorniness / gymnastics. I'm not au fait with the original, so this might be the same there, but it detracts a little from what's an otherwise amusing, if slightly implausible, yarn.

#book #fiction #annetyler

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Success and "failure" of Arrival

We finally caught the increasingly non-recent science fiction "thinker" (and 2017 Oscar nominee) Arrival. While I'd whole-heartedly recommend it for fans of the genre, nit-picker that I am, I have a few reservations as well. So this is less a review, more a niggle. Needless to say, spoilers ahead for those who've not made the journey so far.

First, what it gets right. Build-up is great, with only fleeting glimpses of the alien spaceships until the big reveal in a beautiful, cloud-wreathed valley in Montana. Their unworldliness begins with their design, as largely featureless geometric shapes, and is nicely underscored by the short distance they effortlessly "hover" above the Earth's surface. The aliens themselves are also handled well, if a little too much like squid, both in general appearance and in their use of extruded "ink". Making their audio extraneous for communication (an early misstep by their interrogators), and their language written yet initially indecipherable as communication works really well. And I liked what ultimately came to be their "gift" and why they made it, although it's mentioned so fleetingly that many may miss it.

What mostly-works but slightly-doesn't is that the film is one of those that makes more sense when you reflect on it afterwards. That's a good thing in my book, but I can well imagine that most people will leave this film utterly perplexed by what they've just seen. It's all there to make sense of it, but it's presented rather subtly at times, and often in an order that requires reflection to make sense of. For instance, a central conceit of the film (and a very clever one) is that Sapir-Whorf is true at a deep and fundamental level, but it's quite gently introduced to the viewer at a point where its relevance is opaque. And the consequence of this is illustrated by out-of-order glimpses of a child in what appear at first to be past memories, but which turn out latterly to be something else. However, the viewer is slightly misled by the presentation of some of this material upfront, seemingly as backstory, when it would arguably make more sense to introduce it latterly (narratively, perhaps, but maybe not emotionally).

My only "proper" reservation is, as ever, time travel - technically, I guess it's not exactly time travel, but, well, ... It's nowhere near as blunt as Interstellar (a film I forgave on a second viewing), but messing with the space-time continuum is a sure-fire way of getting my hackles raised. Especially here, where the film has its cake and eats it by allowing agency and then kind-of suggesting fatalism. However, it is still one of the cleverest uses of time-bending in film, so despite my hackles, I'm much more forgiving here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it really is one of the smartest science fiction films in recent years (or decades, even), presenting the sort of deep ideas that, while not uncommon in literary science fiction, rarely make it off the page. It does all of this gently and subtly without any of the distracting pace and action routinely misused in conventional "science fiction" films. And it does it while blending a human story of love and loss in with the central MacGuffin. Two thumbs up for sure.

P.S. I should just add that, with their relationship with time, the aliens reminded me of my favourite aliens, the Invaders of John Varley's novels. Although the Invaders still win because of their disinterest / disdain in humanity.