Thursday, July 30, 2015

More catching up . . .

Annihilation (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer is the first of three short novels called the Southern Reach Trilogy. It tells the history of the 12th expedition into the mysterious Area X.  This expedition consists of four women, referred to by their positions—the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist. Previous expeditions into Area X all ended in various types of disasters.  Annihilation is basically the journal of the biologist. VanderMeer uses this format to play a game with readers—none of the characters are given names, the context of the story as provided by the biologist is only selectively revealed, and the narrator is unreliable. The book is well written, but it is a really a chump’s game. There is no readerly interest in the characters, and only a small curiosity about the setting and plot. VanderMeer withholds too much from the reader, while teasing them along. It is no surprise that nothing is explained at the end, and I’m certain that nothing will be revealed in the two subsequent books. And I have no interest in reading them. 

The New Atlantis (1989) by Ursula K. Le Guin.  This novelette was originally published in 1975, and in 1989 it was issued as a mass market Tor Double (with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Blind Geometer as the main other story).  It was pure coincidence that I read this immediately after VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and found that it almost seems to take place in the future of our world that leads to the future in VanderMeer’s novel. Yet Le Guin is a much greater artist, and she evokes more humanity in this slim story than VanderMeer can muster in an entire novel. 

Song of Kali (1985) by Dan Simmons is an odd book. Set in 1977, it concerns an American magazine writer sent to Calcutta to locate some recent poetry supposedly written by a dead Indian poet. Robert Luzcak travels with his Indian wife and their young daughter. Mystery and intrigue follows. Luzcak is not always sympathetic character (his attitudes towards the Indian natives are rude), and his daughter seems only to be a plot-device to be kidnapped. The tenor of the book changes towards the end, and Simmons broaches some philosophical ideas as suggested by the title (the song of Kali referring to human hatred and violence), but these are not expanded upon, and the novel remains merely an engaging thriller. 

Bimbos of the Death Sun (1988) by Sharyn McCrumb takes place at a small regional science fiction convention. One of the two author guests is the famous, temperamental and arrogant writer of the Tratyn Runewind books, Appin Dungannon. The other guest is a local engineering professor, James Owen Mega, who wrote a hard science fiction novel that a cheap paperback firm published with a cheezy cover and retitled (to the author’s disgust) Bimbos of the Death Sun. As a mystery novel, this is an oddity. Appin Dungannon doesn’t even get murdered until the second half of the book, and the murder is solved in the last two chapters by acting out a D&D game. But what makes it interesting and readable is the spot-on depiction of the science fiction fans at the convention—critical but also compassionate.  Anyone who has attended a science fiction convention will have encountered many people similar to the characters found in this amusing novel. 


Friends of the Dead (2015) by James Doig.  This limited edition (only 200 copies) collects ten short stories, most of which are in the medievalist antiquarian mode, and thus in the tradition of M.R. James. The medieval historical aspects are particularly well-done here—an area often given short shrift by modern Jamesian writers who lack the expertise in the medieval (Doig mentions in his short introduction of having studied for a PhD. in medieval history).  One story (“Malware,” which opens the book), however, is completely modern: a tale of computer systems and hackers.  It is as well-done as the rest of the tales in this handsome volume.  

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