Monday, September 29, 2014

Truly Alien--Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Image courtesy of Bujo at Flicker CC
One thing that has always bothered me about ufologists and alien hunters is their surprising lack of imagination.

In 99 out of 100 alien movies or UFO treatises, the aliens are more or less our size, more or less bipedal humanoid creatures like ourselves, who more or less happen to share our madness for technology and also like sex with Earthlings, a lot.

I mean, seriously?

No one ever thinks that aliens might be microscopic, or bigger than multiple sperm whales, or comprised of something so strange as to be unrecognizable to human beings as life.

In fact, science is still arguing about what life is, even right here, on Earth. Definitions elude us. So, how can we look for life beyond Earth if we can't even quite understand the life in front of our noses?

The strangest life of all might be the life behind our own noses.

H.P Lovecraft understood this kind of existential strangeness, and understood how and why people avoid it. His imagination spawned worlds; he created an entire mythos around his unique and awful perception of our plight.

Lovecraft is rightly celebrated today, not just for his unique linguistic tics (settle down you eldritch cynics), but for the dense, murky tone of his writing, the way the words conjure up horrors so alien, so ancient, so beyond our most esoteric ramblings that even seasoned Lovecraft readers still shudder involuntarily when they read them.

Enter Jeff Vandermeer with his Southern Reach Trilogy.

Writing in the shadow of Lovecraft, Vandermeer takes language and chops it up in such a deft and horrible fashion that the reader is almost imperceptibly knocked off his or her personal linguistic moorings, whatever they may be, right along with the characters. In this way Vandermeer forces the reader to experience, if only vicariously, the end of personal identity and all the horror, wonder, and madness that necessarily accompanies that loss.

Vandermeer is not forming a Lovecraft tribute band with this series. He doesn't write like H.P. Lovecraft. Arkham is a good thousand (million?) miles away from the unnamed stretch of southern coast that comes to be known in his trilogy as "Area X", a mysterious tract of nature that is invaded by something preternatural and undefinable.

And yet the story is informed by Lovecraft, because early on it lays out the existential horror implied by loss of category.

Philosophy students will recognize what seem at first like gratuitous references to Jacques Derrida and Deconstructionism, but the Southern Reach Trilogy is not some dry exercise in intellectual snottiness. Although not an easy read, the trilogy zigs and zags between startling, even poetic descriptions of the natural territory and dry, irritating expositions of the inner workings of the minds of various characters.

The effect is to mire the reader inside Area X along with the characters; no small achievement, and it isn't until the last page that you realize you won't be able to forget the experience.

Annihilation, the first volume, is a good read, if a bit choppy. The choppiness is easy to forgive or ignore, because the story is original and interesting. You want answers to questions that are raised here. I, for one, could hardly wait for the second volume, Authority, to come out, even while resenting the fact that I had to wait.

But Authority, is a slog. Those questions keep the reader hooked and pushing forward, even while thinking, "Why are you doing this to me Jeff?" He has his reasons, which unfold in the final volume in ways that startle and satisfy and prove that answers are beside the point, really.

The final volume, Acceptance, really sings.  Parts of it are quite beautiful. Written in all three persons (first, second, and third) the events feel natural and preternatural all at once. At some point after finishing the final volume, I realized that I'd just read the first jazz horror novel.

Honestly it's quite brilliant.

I don't want to say too much more, for fear of spoiling the experience for readers new to the Southern Reach, but it did my heart good to see this genre reach these heights.

I think Lovecraft would have loved it.

I know I did.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

California by Edan Lepucki: Eat, Pray, Apocalypse?

About a third of the way into California, the main character Frida encounters a porcupine in the woods and runs back to her makeshift encampment screaming for her husband.

This would be a great scene in a satiric novel, and California could have been written as killer satire, but I don't think satire is what Lepucki intended.

For this reason, and so many others, Lepucki's first novel never really delivers on the cover promise of a "stunning and brilliant... wholly original take on the post-apocalyptic genre."

I wanted to love this novel. I love Sherman Alexie. Love Stephen Colbert. Feel zero fondness for Amazon and buy from Powell's all the time.

Lepucki looked like a nice person who was very excited to be getting this kind of 'bump' on her very first time out of the gate.

I like all of that.

I give Lepucki kudos for writing a novel and publishing it. I give myself kudos for finishing nearly 400 pages patiently hoping things would quickly turn around.

But for me, they never did.

Lots of opportunities were missed in this story.

Cal and Frida are not very deeply drawn and are not very sympathetic main characters. They seem as bland and blonde and California-ish as the state itself seems to people in other parts of the U.S., parts that already deal with severe winters, tornados, hurricanes, all manner of invasive species and diseases, and urban decay with roots in rioting and dead factories.

Again, if this was satire, that could work. It doesn't.

Missed opportunity number one: the title.

Why is the book called California? We never really find out. Frida's husband Cal is teasingly called "California' by Frida's obnoxious brother Micah (who later becomes a sort of terrorist/cult leader), but the story is more Frida's than anyone else's.

California could have been an ironic title, but it isn't. It's just kind of there, like Frida and Cal are there, and then, they're somewhere else, and then they're somewhere else.They leave the city for an unnamed wilderness. Why, it's hard to say. Frida clearly is not into it, and it is hard to understand how their woodland life is any better than their post-apocalyptic city life.

Missed opportunity number two: So much attention is paid to the fairly shallow (and endless) interpersonal dynamics that we never get a real sense of scene, and it seems to me that in a novel about a fallen-apart world, you have to deliver that at minimum. That is one of the must-do requirements of the genre.

The forest doesn't seem real, the apocalyptic landscapes are thin and poorly explained, and the weather is surprisingly bland, almost non-existent--and this when at the moment half of real California is either on fire or desperate for water. It gets cold, it gets hot. It doesn't storm. We see a porcupine, a coyote, and a couple of rabbits.

I need more.

Missed opportunity number three: The characters. All of them are sketchy, shallow, annoying.

Maybe it is because Lepucki is still young, I don't know, but she didn't go deep enough, not by half. We never really care about Frida, Cal, or Micah. At their most conflicted worst they irritate us as much as they irritate each other, but having seen the fireworks at ordinary funerals and weddings many times in my 60-plus years, I have to think the interpersonal drama triggered by survival issues would go a lot deeper than, "oh cool, Micah still has the bee toy Mom attached to his stroller," and "wow are our hands ever chapped!"

Missed opportunity number four: A plot.

OK, there is a plot. But it is maddeningly expository, like one of those bad sci-fi flicks where the characters fill in the backstory with longwinded impossible dialogue. Lepucki even kills, then reanimates one of the main characters for no apparent reason, breaking a rule that should not really be broken unless you can dazzle with your surprising plot skills.

The plot almost seems like an annoyance to Lepucki, something that she knows she has to deal with as a writer but that takes away from her focus on the tension between the characters.

I personally think that if your characters are annoying and unsympathetic, they should at least get eaten or something by the end of the novel, and hopefully in a spectacular, unpredictable way, but alas, it is not meant to be. This is what happens in monster movies, but not in Lepucki's novel.

By the end of California Frida and Cal are back in a 'community' not unlike the suburban plats we all see everywhere these days, where everything is beige and all the lawns are perfect. Frida and Cal stop complaining about their chapped hands and go back to complaining about bad clothes, bad food, stupid suburban rules, and they still don't seem to like each other much.

This is the way the world ends?

Not with a bang, but a whimper, tasteless nutritional shakes, and bad retail.

Why, God? Why?!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Most Invasive Alien Species Ever

Us. It's us.

If that sounds like some green terrorist guilt trip, I don't mean it that way, and it isn't even my opinion. I read it in a book called The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

If you want to get really discouraged and freaked out fast, read that book.

So many anthropologists and paleontologists and geologists now see modern human beings as the most planet-changing species ever to hit Earth that the modern era has been renamed the Anthrocene.

The name invokes our species-specific tendency to alter the environment in drastic ways while spreading alien species around the globe to the detriment of native ones. Apparently we are responsible for the spread of all kinds of species to places they really don't belong: viruses, fungi, zebra mussels, cane toads, kudzu, and on and on.

The upshot of all this altering and spreading is a mass extinction of the same (or greater) magnitude as the one that happened when that comet wiped out the dinosaurs.

The jury is still out as to who is going to survive this particular extinction, and how, but apparently, it won't be the frogs. The frogs are already nearly gone.

The book got me to thinking though, it might just be true that the aliens are us; that if we want to see an invasive alien species up close, get proof positive that alines exist, all we have to do is look in a mirror.

Since the Victorian Era, many writers and even scientists have floated the idea that human beings are actually from Mars--not just men, but women too, all of us. (Venus is too hot.) Many modern day scientists believe that fungi, those tiny strange organisms that make life possible and make bread rise, actually came here on some wandering bit of rock.

We are in a very real sense descended from stars.

Whether or not we as homo sapiens were purposively bred by big-eyed aliens who came to Assyria for the gold is not even the issue. Our very existence, our genetic makeup, the way we behave in such a naturally destructive capacity, proves us to be a cosmic pest.

Evidently, humans are the ape variant of purple loosestrife or Japanese knotweed.

It seems the Earth goes through lifeforms in a cyclic fashion. So you have your slow Darwinian evolution and random mutations and so forth, and then, every four or five hundred thousand years the Earth wipes the slate clean and starts over again with new critters and new plants, as well as a few hardy survivors from the last cycle.

If we are indeed in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, which animals will still be around when the next cycle starts? Rats? Roaches? Snails?

We might not be here to answer that question.