(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It’s rare to see first-class science fiction movies gets as weird and eerie as Annihilation—although, considering the source that is Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, it’s not that unexpected. The film clearly heads out to Stalker/Solyaris territory in presupposing a zone of strange phenomena and a group of explorers tasked with understanding some of what’s going on. Headlined by a power group of gifted young actresses (Nathalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson in glasses and curly hair—yes!), this film gets more and more unsettling as the group gets closer to the source of the anomaly, and it takes them apart in very literal ways. The really good production design and rainbow-hued cinematography give justice to the uncanny visuals and troubled subject matter—the film is not interested in theatrics (or even understanding what’s going on) as much as in studying grief, terminal melancholy and self-destruction. Everybody has a bad past in this film, and it’s that past that challenges them more than the alien presence at the heart of the zone. Compared to the writer/director Alex Garland’s previous Ex Machina, Annihilation is more subtle, more hermetic, more suitable to a range of interpretations (what’s with the tattoo thing?) than its preceding nuts-and-bolts nightmare. It’s just as thought-provoking, however, and a good example of the avenues that filmed Science Fiction has not yet fully explored.
Monkeybrain, 2004, 335 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 1-932265-11-2
Jeff VanderMeer has finally hit critical mass in the past few years, with the publication of a few books by major publishers and widespread attention from the SF blogosphere. Naturally, this “overnight success” only counts if you haven’t been paying attention. If that’s the case, his nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is ample occasion to catch up on VanderMeer’s career so far.
The pieces included here roughly cover four types of writing: Convention reports, autobiographical pieces, reviews and criticism. In a stroke of editorial genius, convention reports bookend the three other sections, offering an evolving portrait of VanderMeer. From the brash young man who storms into Atlanta’s Georgiacon 1990 finding fault with everyone he meets, to the seasoned pro who spends a good chunk of 2002 on the road with family and friends, this book could have been subtitled “Evolution of an Author” if the current “Excursions into the worlds of science fiction, fantasy & horror” wasn’t descriptive enough.
The book works better if you already know and admire VanderMeer’s other publications. The book’s first section is about the writer and his work, and is filled with references to his existing bibliography: A lengthy article alone details the problems that VanderMeer had in realizing his vision of City of Saints & Madmen with a POD publisher: an odyssey of several years and nightmarish efforts. I found it fascinating, but then again there’s a copy of the book sitting on my shelves. Knowing all about VanderMeer’s work is much easier now that he’s being published by major publishers such as Tor and Bantam Spectra, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the rest of the book. It helps that VanderMeer writes with clarity and enthusiasm: Chances are that even if you only know the outline of his career, you ‘ll be able to follow along.
Most of the VanderMeer-specific references become less important in the latter two sections of the collection anyway: The “Reviews” section should be of interest to any literary fantasy fan, with short takes on a variety of pieces from various SF&F novels to individual issues of magazines. As a reviewer, VanderMeer is well-informed and fearless: as a result, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy his take-down of Martin Scott’s Thraxas than his admiration of M. John Harrison’s Light. But he certainly knows what makes a story tick, as demonstrated by his even-handed considerations on China Miéville’s The Scar and Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward. A trio of “Read This!” pieces for the New York Review of Science-Fiction offers quick take on a variety of topics.
The “Criticism” section is hit-and-miss, though I suspect that this has more to do with my lack of knowledge in classic fantasy literature than to any failing in VanderMeer’s own pieces. To his credit, he has managed to convince me that I should have a look at Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. Unfortunately, he hasn’t managed the same trick with Angela Carter in either of his lengthy appreciations. I was rather more inspired by the polemics “Horror: Alive or Dead?” and “The Death of the Imagination?” —though I came away from the latter convinced that I suck as a reviewer. Not that this will ever stop me.
But let’s go back to the convention reports, because they’re the pieces who glue the book together. Four report, four stops along the way of VanderMeer’s career. I must admire his guts in allowing the first two convention report being republished presumably as-is: Sometimes, they read much like a lengthy version of “Here’s What I Hated During My Summer Holidays”. VanderMeer takes potshots at a bunch of people, is dismissive of the convention scene and can’t figure out what he has in common with those people. But those are the adventures of a young writer: The latter two reports are far more generous, and reflect VanderMeer’s growing stature in the field. What’s more, all reports are very well-written, and the first two contain their moments of laugh-aloud hilarity. They say things that may occur to anyone stuck at bad conventions and even lousier panels. No fantasy convention, after all, can withstand the scrutiny of a non-fan.
With time, VanderMeer has become somewhat more diplomatic, though not entirely so: A look at his current on-line presence shows that he remains blessedly candid about what he dislikes and channels the more outrageous stuff through his “Evil Monkey” alter-ego. Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is not just a glimpse at his growth as a writer, but it’s the kind of book fit to transform any existing reader into a fan. I may never know as much about fantasy as VanderMeer does, or ever write anywhere near his level, but I’m glad that he’s out there figuring it out and showing the way. With luck, we’ll get another non-fiction book collection from him soon.
Bantam, 2005, 297 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38339-6
Humour is a subjective thing, and medical humour even more so. My encounters with the health care system have so far been mercifully brief, but I still find myself a hard sell when it comes to humour in a medical… vein. Pain, diseases, death: not funny!
So imagine the uphill battle when it comes to reading and appreciating The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. As the title suggests, it’s a book of weird medical conditions. What the title doesn’t tell you, however, is that it’s a humorous anthology of fake diseases imagined by a bunch of science-fiction and fantasy writers.
So don’t be surprised if you happen to read about a disease in which bones migrate outside the body (eventually leaving the invertebrate patient quivering like an old squid) or one where the sufferer’s organs slowly transforms themselves into fruits. Despite the hair-raising farther reaches of real medicine, the contributor to the Guide manage to invent an impressive number of even more extreme conditions.
Take, for instance, Steve Aylett’s “Download Syndrome”, in which people rely so much on electronic devices for memory that they become empty vessels. Or Brian Stableford’s “Ferrobacterial Accretion Syndrome”, describing how some individuals form metal sculptures within their bodies. (Not to be confused with Jeffrey Thomas’ “Internalized Tattooing Disease”.) Not to mention Jeff Topham’s “Logopetria”, a condition where patients’ words are, um, literally spat out. And who can forget Michael Bishop’s “Biblioartifexism”; the delusion that one has re-composed a classic work of literature?
Not all entries are so amusing. A number of them aim for horror rather than humour, and if the results can be effective (I’m unaccountably fond of Jeffrey Thomas’ “Extreme Exostosis”, for instance), many of the others simply fall flat. What may seem amusing to a writer may end up looking lame to readers, and so a fair chunk of Thackery lands with a gross thud. But as with any other anthology, you learn to remember the best and forget the rest.
Some of the book’s most effective moments come as it starts playing subtle tricks on the reader. Pay particular attention to the diseases flagged as “contagious”, as those often indicate a writer in the full grip of the condition he’s describing. I was completely charmed by Rhys Hughes’s “Ebercitas”, but then again who could resist the beauty, even unseen, of Eber M. Soler? (Example!) In a grimmer but no-less hilarious fashion, China Mieville’s “Wormword” does a lot of mileage out of a simple memetic concept. David Langford turn in one of the shortest entries with “Logrolling Ephesus”, but as Langford fans know, the man can do miracles in less than a thousand “words”.
Thackery also earns top marks for its sumptuous design, consciously modelled on Victorian-era medical textbooks and often implemented hand-in-hand with the content. John Coulthart’s “Paper Pox” and Brian Evenson’s “Worsley’s Supplement” visually demonstrate their afflictions (chilling and amusing readers in the process), whereas the last third of the book does wonders in re-creating snippets of the Guide‘s “previous editions.”
Maybe a third of the book is not dedicated to the actual description of fake diseases, and that part of the Guide isn’t as successful as the rest. The character of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead may not be as hilarious as the editors may think he is, and his adventures across the world during the twentieth century are sometimes more tedious than amusing. The “secret history” of the twentieth century as influenced by the Guide is a good concept, but the execution is hit-and-miss.
But, as I said, humour is subjective, let alone medical humour. The Guide has received lavish praise from critics and readers; who am I to spoil the fun? At the very least, I should acknowledge the considerable amount of effort that went in putting together the guide (the visual design alone is worth a peek in the bookstore), even if the ultimate impact is mixed.
Wait… perpetual hunger for better books, lack of satisfaction regarding most things, irresistible compulsion to chronicle inner disappointments on “the web”. What if I have a condition?
Is Dr. Lambshead taking submissions for a second edition?
Prime Books, 2003, 207 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 1-894815-64-5
I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’m not too fond of gratuitously-grotesque fiction. I can handle weird stuff (whether it’s the old weird or the new one), but I like my weirdness funny, not grim. Cordwainer Smith, you say? I reply Bah. In short, I’m not the target audience for Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground, a dark fantasy book borrowing equally from SF and horror, a nightmare trip through a far-future city that owes as much to Gregor Mendel than to Hieronymus Bosch.
But the novel (and Vandermeer himself) kept getting such rave reviews in the specialized SF&F community that trying to ignore the novel was getting to be actively embarrassing. So when I found myself at the 2004 Boston Worldcon with twenty dollars, the new trade paperback edition of Veniss Underground and Vandermeer nearby, well, it all happened very quickly. “I hope you like the book” said Vandermeer after autographing my copy. Well, he wasn’t alone in sharing the sentiment.
But I do, fortunately. I even do like Veniss Underground quite a bit, considering that I’m not an ideal target audience for it. It’s well-written, has plenty of good moments and enough spectacular images to satisfy even one of the most reluctant hard-SF fan in the crowd.
Divided in three sections, Veniss Underground evolves and unfolds gradually, only revealing its true dramatic arc in the third section. At first, we get to meet Nicholas, an artist with good intentions but a rotten streak of luck. He slums in the garbage zone, and he is only too willing to tell us a story in exchange for water, food or drugs. His story is, all things considered, ordinary. A quest for a criminal overlord (or is it a genius scientist?), as Nicholas’ last chance at putting his life back together.
But the story doesn’t go where you think it’s going. Soon enough, you become Nicola, Nicholas’ sister, an upper-class programmer who lives high above the city of Veniss. (You become her because you are the protagonist of part two, much as Nicholas narrated part one and part three is told via a third-person point-of-view) Her brother gone, Nicola finds herself the recipient of a curious gift, a genetically-modified meerkat only too willing to be her servant. But where is her brother? Could her meerkat be part of the answer… or the root of the problem?
But wait again; before you even think you know where this is going, we settle in our final protagonist: Policeman Shadrach, who will have to venture underground (deep underground) to rescue what he loves and destroy what he hates. As he climbs deeper down, Veniss becomes poorer, stranger, crueler. This voyage to the heart of darkness won’t be easy… nor without consequences. What he finds down there could have repercussions for the entire human race.
And that’s the book in a nutshell. But what this plot summary can’t tell you is the way it’s all shown to you. Vandermeer isn’t your usual SF&F-as-entertainment punk who only wants to tell stories. No; he’s a real writer, and this love for good writing shows throughout the entire book. Savvy structure, tons of allusions to classic literature and fine descriptive passages should please even picky readers. Those looking for a story aren’t as richly rewarded, but there’s a strong (if simple) plotline running throughout the entire novel, one that delivers a satisfying resolution to boot.
But resolution isn’t everything, and so it’s the nightmarish imagery of the book that is likely to resonate with readers long after the final page. The trip through a magnificent organ bank (and a less-magnificent organ pile). The way to go to the last underground level. The final confrontation between hero and villain. The mixture of SF, horror and fantasy.
No, I’m not the ideal target audience for this book. As a die-hard partisan of genre restrictions and a Hard-SF reader convinced about the primacy of plot over style, I didn’t go bonkers over Veniss Underground like so many of my fellow reviewers. But I liked it well enough to consider it time and money well-spent. As a piece of twenty-first-century imaginative literature, there’s even something to be said about the way Vandermeer borrows from multiple genres in order to tell the story he wants without necessarily fitting it in a particular niche like would have been the case thirty years ago. (Usually in SF; I’ll try to say something more about this purification of the “science-fiction” label in a latter review, preferably as a companion to the “domination of fantasy isn’t a bad thing” argument) Good work, Mr. Vandermeer. Yes, I liked your book. Am even looking forward to your next novel.