Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was my first foray into the new weird genre and man, it was a deep end if there is one. The premise is basic enough: There is a mysterious, untouched coastline somewhere in the US that, years ago, had suddenly and inexplicably become host to a bizarre new ecosystem. It is quarantined and referred to as Area X by the Southern Reach, a secretive government agency. All the prior expeditions sent into Area X resulted in disasters – the explorers committed mass suicide, killed each other, developed fatal cancers. The twelfth expedition consists of four women – a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist (the main character). The biologist is an intriguing character; she’s described as being very distant from others, most comfortable when analysing microorganisms on the coast of Ireland, far away from human contact. She is remarkedly pragmatic when confronted with the unknown and comes off as a little alien herself:

“A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people, I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.”

VanderMeer doesn’t ease the reader in but instead starts to throw questions into the air almost immediately. After less than 24 hours the team is disagreeing about basic discoveries. Is this tunnel going underground we found important? Is it a tunnel or a shaft? Or a tunnel? Should we continue on to lighthouse stay here? Why is the tunnel not on the map?

The biologist soon realises that the secret government agency has ulterior motives (shocker!) and that their leader, the psychologist has her own goals. It soon becomes clear that the mission is a farce – equipment is all broken or anachronistic, their extensive astronaut-like training is irrelevant and they are not even fully in control of themselves.

Everything VanderMeer does is carefully added to keep everything bizarre – without names and with their fields of expertise made irrelevant almost instantly after entering Area X, the team is defined only by their bare emotions (the surveyor is aggressive, the psychologist is peculiar, the biologist is curious, the anthropologist is anxious). The expedition team are made to bring outdated technology They are told this to help to keep outside influences out but is it really? Hypnosis stops the team leaving and soon the reader comes to realise maybe the experiment isn’t to see what Area X is but to see how the women react when immersed in bizarre stimuli.

I’ve mentioned hypnosis a few times and I think that its inclusion is really the only real weakness in the novel. VanderMeer relies on the concept of hypnosis quite strongly and in this weird, fantastical environment it’s the almost mind control powers that come off as least believable. Characters forget entire days due to it, they fall into comatose positions, their minds easily malleable from just a single word. I don’t know if hypnosis is actually that powerful in real life but it ruined the immersion just for a moment.

When I first picked up Annihilation I was mildly surprised at how short it was. But the length works in its favour; it doesn’t let up for a moment. The story is constantly being pushed forward, there’s no time to ponder each new revelation as another is thrown at the reader. VanderMeer could have easily filled it out to 400 pages by pausing the story and including backstory on the biologist, on Area X or starting it earlier in the timeline. But he chooses not to. He chooses to start as they enter the area and gives little to no explanations about what is going on. The reader is at an equal loss for knowledge as the biologist – or even more so considering she herself is such an enigma.

It constantly keeps the reader on their toes with a consistently eerie mood throughout. Every page is full of mystery – cryptic writing on the walls of the tunnel with run on sentences that rival dickens, a deep voice coming from somewhere in the swamp, plants that appear to contain human matter within them. I was never really able to feel relaxed throughout but like the biologist who just keeps trucking through, what else can she do, I just keep reading – both of us expecting that eventually everything will be explained.

But that’s the crux of the book. There are few answers. If you’re the type of reader who likes their mysteries explained by the end Sherlock Holmes style, you’re going to be unsatisfied with this. That doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad ending, it’s not, it’s excellent. It’s ambiguous, open to interpretation, just explained enough (that is to say, barely at all) and almost forcing me to start its sequel, Authority.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers – A fantastically sanguine story of friendship and self-discovery

I read A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet a while ago and loved it. I don’t remember reading such a happy, positive book that presents itself in such a way that doesn’t come off saccharine. I thoroughly enjoyed the slice of life novel which incidentally is a genre that I’d never really come across.

The large cast of characters on the ship felt very Firefly-esque but with far more relatable crew members. The characters were all very realistic and familiar to the reader despite the majority being aliens. Becky Chambers spends a good deal of time developing the worldbuilding of the universe and does so deftly. I particularly like the use of chat logs reminiscent of IRC channels to give us a glimpse of the ‘main’ characters exploration of the space-wikipedia. I say ‘main’ because while Rosemary is introduced first and probably has the most POV chapters, each crew member gets their own storylines. None are world ending but just show that they all lead complex lives with worries and goals.

I was fascinated by the diversity of aliens; never were they just humans-but-blue or humans-but-reptiles (looking at you, Mass Effect) but instead totally uniquely designed. There’s an alien race called Sianats that has entirely been infected with a virus that lets them comprehend multi dimensional space allowing them to pilot ships through wormholes. Since every member of the Sianat race is paired with a parasite, they are referred to as Sianat Pairs and use plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘I’. There’s a reptilian Aandrisk race (okay, there is one…) but it’s a supremely unique race in that their concept of family is totally different to humans. Every Aandrisk has three families, one that raises them, one that they live with as adults and one that they raises others as a a part of. They have a very casual sex culture, happy to mate with strangers and multiple others in public. The Aeluon are a race of aliens that communicate solely through their colour changing skin. Their skin is admired by all other races and can transition through the entire colour spectrum. These vastly different alien species really highlight Chambers’s imagination in creating her world and them all coexisting peacefully in the one ship is representative of a major theme of acceptance examined throughout the book.

Having enjoyed the lack of plot in A Long Way, I was mildly surprised that A Closed And Common Orbit is a less meandering, more focused novel on just two new main characters. Chambers uses this to explore the characters in more depth by keeping the storylines focus heavily on character development. There’s very little action in the book, probably even less than A Long Way; the characters generally do not develop through actions but more through conversations with those around them and self-reflection. The two storylines are mostly separate but they intertwine occasionally in a thematic manner. Both are about the the discovery of oneself, discussing the idea of what one does after rejecting their designated purpose.

One of the storylines continues off from where A Long Way ends. The AI Lovelace is taken out of the Wayfarers ship due to her predecessor’s relationships with the crew and decides to live with a mechanic Pepper while she tries to get used to going from being a ship AI to a body unit AI. The change is shown to be extremely uncomfortable for Lovelace as she goes from having cameras all over a spaceship and constant access to the galaxy-wide Internet (which she requires to research new ideas and concepts, a task she requires often as she has only just been turned on) to pretending to be a human. Since unshackled sentient AI is at best a touchy subject in the Galactic Commons and at worst, illegal, Lovelace has to disconnect herself and act as a human, limiting her natural inclinations.

The claustrophobic feeling that Lovelace continually experiences is represented excellently and despite my being not a robot, it was surprisingly easy to relate to. She felt like an extreme introvert forcing herself to endure public places and meet new people. Repeatedly, she would run back to her comfort zone and plug herself in to the cameras set up around Pepper’s house to simulate a spaceship monitoring system.

The other storyline covers Pepper’s early years as a human child clone called Jane-23. She is forced to work in a scrapheap sweatshop, taking apart scrap metal to salvage working components. She and all the other Janes are supervised by robot ‘Mothers’ that is somewhat reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunts. Her story follows her awful childhood there briefly before detailing how she leaves it behind, and finds a ship whose AI raises her. It’s a very touching story that shows why Pepper was willing to help Lovelace adapt to her new life despite the dangers it included. There are lots of cute little moments like Jane discovering her first cartoon TV show, or how she decides on the new name Pepper.

A common problem in A Closed and Common Orbit in multiple POV books, especially those with just a few, is that often the viewpoint switches too often. I had this problem with The Lies of Locke Lamora too, just as the reader begins enjoying one storyline, it switches to the other. A minor criticism really but just something that made me sigh every so often.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit. The casual nature that Chambers discusses sexuality, gender and inter species culture is wonderfully refreshing. Often when a book attempts to include societal norms that are more progressive than our own or are simply just different they do so in a hamfisted, self-congratulatory manner that undercuts the sincerity of it. Some have criticised Chambers for being overly optimistic in her depiction of the future’s accepted customs and while I agree, I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing.