Posts Tagged ‘bsfa review’
I am writing this – my last editorial – in the aftermath of Mancunicon, the 67th British national science fiction convention. As usual, there was a strong BSFA presence, including (obviously) at the BSFA Awards which were announced on Saturday. The Best Artwork award went to Jim Burns for his cover for Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates. I think this was all Ian’s fault. As chair of the BSFA, he challenged me to put up or shut up and get involved with the organisation. The result was a special BSFA booklet, SF Writers On SF Films: From Akira To Zardoz (remember that?). The experience was obviously a good one as I came back for more when the role of reviews editor was advertised.
I wasn’t sure how long I would be doing to job for when I started but it turned out to be almost six years. At Eastercon I managed to catch up with three of the four Vector editors I served under during that period: Niall Harrison, Shana Worthen and Glyn Morgan. Glyn was actually on a panel with me, Book Reviews In The Age Of Amazon: “In place of relatively few “gatekeeper” reviewers in relatively few venues, we have a commons where anyone can review if they choose.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is positive thing that the internet has provided a democratic platform for everyone. But it isn’t either/or; there is still a space for informed, considered and – crucially – edited opinions.
So perhaps it was fitting that straight after that panel I met my successor as reviews editor, Susan Oke, for the first time (in the slightly unexpected location of the Strange Horizons tea party in the Deansgate Hilton’s Presidential Suite up on the 22nd floor). My aim was to leave the reviews section in better shape than I found it and I think I’ve achieved this. I’m sure Sue will improve further on what I’ve done and I look forward to watching that journey as a member. And also contributing since I will be experiencing life on the other side of a table as a reviewer, rather than an editor. Go easy on me, Sue, I’m a bit rusty!
- Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (Fixi Novo, 2014) – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
- Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho (Macmillan, 2015) -Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- IF THEN by Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- The Night Clock by Paul Meloy (Solaris Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Corsair, 2016) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The Last Witness by KJ Parker (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- What if I got down on my knees? by T Rauch (Whistling Shade Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
BSFA members will have noticed that there was no editorial in this issue’s BSFA Review. This was because once again I ran out of time which, in turn, is one of the reasons I am standing down as reviews editor. It has been a great couple of years and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved but it is time for a change. So I’m very pleased to announce that Susan Oke will be taking over from me from Vector #283.
- Modernism And Science Fiction by Paul March-Russell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- Europe At Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins, 2014) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- Mother Of Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus, 2015) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The Fifth Dimension by Martin Vopěnka, translated by Hana Sklenkova (Barbican Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Barricade by Jon Wallace (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Pelquin’s Comet by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
- The House Of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris, 2015) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, translated by Lola M Rogers (Pushkin Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Deep Time by Anthony Nanson (Hawthorn Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- Ashamet, Desert Born by Terry Jackman (Dragonwell Publishing, 2015) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- Fencing Academy by AW Freyr (Uruk Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
I had been planning to review about Y Dydd Olaf by Gwenno for my editorial this time round but I’ve rapidly came to the conclusion I’m not qualified to write about it. If I wanted to put you off, I would describe it as a folktronica concept album sung in Welsh (and, occasionally, Cornish). But I don’t because it is great. Perhaps more alluring is the fact Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day) is also the title of a 1976 science fiction novel by Owain Owain, nuclear scientist, poet and Welsh language activist. Alas, as far as I can tell it has never been translated into English. If any members have read a copy, please let me know!
The language barrier for the album initially seemed less insurmountable; a track like ‘Patriarchaeth’ sounds like it should be pretty self-explanatory and Saunders has given some fascinating interviews about where her music is coming from and the seed Owain’s novel has sown. So this gave me hope. And, after all, my favourite science fiction albums are all instrumental. This includes both actual SF soundtracks such as Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk, albums that merely sound like soundtracks such as Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons.
The sequel to Tron gets a bad rep as just another example of Hollywood cannibalising itself and I can’t in good conscience describe it as a good film but the audio and visual design is stunning and the partnership with Daft Punk is inspired. The opener, ‘Overture’, is pure blockbuster bombast. Hubris clobbered by nemesis, indeed. This then slides into ‘The Grid’ before the sublime ‘Son Of Flynn’, each sketching out SF worlds in less than two minutes each.
Meanwhile ‘Surf Solar’, the opening track of Tarot Sport, is ten and half minutes minutes of escalating, unrestrained sense of wonder. For some reason, it always puts me in mind of space elevators; the optimism and drama of Arthur C Clarke’s The Fountains Of Paradise and gothic destruction of Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. ‘Surf Solar’ is truly epic and listening to it whilst driving on the motorway is likely to lead to your license being endorsed.
Y Dydd Olaf is a rather different kettle of fish, both for its tone and its use of words. In fact, its surface is remarkably sunny for a dystopia, perhaps not surprising from an artist whose previous outfit was The Pipettes. But I say ‘surface’ since the aforementioned ‘Patriachaeth’ marries a bouncy electro beat and soaring vocals to the following refrain: “Patriarchy, and your soul is under siege”. But I only know that because I looked it up.
As the album progress, the production becomes increasingly harried by robotic noises of the sort that make The Middle Of Nowhere my default ‘bloody hell, the future’s out to get me’ album. There are even pwew-pwew laser noises as ‘Sisial Y Môr’ fades out. But what does it all mean? You can clearly pick up the rejection of purist folk revival and the embrace of a counter-narrative built around industrial heritage; simplistically, a sonic melding of north and south Wales. Still, a lot of context and hence nuance is striped out by my inability to understand the lyrics which means that, unlike the other examples above, I feel like I am missing half the picture.
So I can tell you ‘Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki’ is the standout track on the album and I that a big part of why I love it is Saunders’s phrasing but I can’t tell you what she is saying. Interestingly, however, the album comes with an accompanying suite of remixes including a radical re-interpretation of this song by TOY. This howling, violent version is perhaps more accessible for being entirely abstract (though certainly not better).
Despite all this equivocation, I can wholeheartedly recommend the album to you. If you only want to own one Welsh language… well, make it Mwng by Super Furry Animals. If you want to own two, buy Y Dydd Olaf. And I’m sure random music recommendations is exactly why you are a member of the BSFA. Still, this column was certainly less outright ill-conceived that one of my scraped editorial ideas to review the 2013 Tom Cruise film Oblivion based solely on its soundtrack. My notes include such baffling scribbles as “same setting as The Lion King?” and “Morgan Freeman = giant spider” so I think you can probably count yourself lucky.
- Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Bruce Sterling (MIT Technology Review, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Glorious Angels by Justina Robson (Gollancz, 2015) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Rook Song by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Superposition by David Walton (Pyr, 2015) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe (Tor, 2015) – Review by Gary Dalkin
- The Madagaskar Plan by Guy Saville (Hodder and Stoughton, 2015) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- The Empire Of Time by David Wingrove (Del Rey UK, 2014) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Dark Star by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories, 2015) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Edge Of Dark by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2015) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- In Dark Service by Stephen Hunt (Gollancz, 2014) – Reviewed by Kerry Dodd
- The Night Mayor by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2015) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
You are about to read a dirty word but please don’t turn the page, I promise it is only a passing reference. So, the Hugos… wasn’t that a great shortlist for Best Graphic Story? Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate and three Image titles: Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass And Sorcery, Saga Volume 3 and Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick. After years of being an embarrassment, Best Graphic Story is now the least embarrassing shortlist on the ballot.
Whilst I was waiting for Image to release the second collected volume of Sex Criminals, I came across another one of their titles in a local charity shop. As it were. If Sex Criminals is an attention grabbing name, Sex: Summer Of Hard is about as subtle as an erect penis waggling in your face. However, the nakedness of its name does not immediately live up to expectations. Instead we have the first volume of a comic that appears to be asking the question, what would happen if Bruce Wayne hung up his cowl?
Simon Cooke is a 35 year old billionaire playboy. Up until seven months ago, he was also the Armored Saint. As is traditional, this superhero alter-ego was motivated not by inequality or poverty but rather the “complete and utter decadence” of the city. Did I mention that he is blond?
Having promised his Alfred figure that he will quit his night job, Cooke returns to Saturn City in order to begin running the family business. As you can imagine, the hard-working professionals who actually run the global company are thrilled. After a hard day doing nothing, Cooke decides to unwind by heading to an exclusive brothel. One which just happens to be owned by one of his ex-nemeses, Annabelle Lagravenese AKA supervillian Shadow Lynx AKA his ultimate unrequited crush. She is as incredulous as the reader:
Guess I’ll just have to take your word for it that you’re not here on some sort of bizarre reconnaissance mission…
Of course, that opens up an even more interesting possibility…
…your curious, aren’t you?
Not that I blame you. The way you were living, it stands to reason that once you hung up the helmet, the psychological floodgates would open up, big time…
Battle through all that highlighter pen – heavy handily and repetitively used throughout the book’s dialogue to convey emphasis – and you find that the comic is really answering another question: what if Bruce Wayne was a virgin?
It is certainly a novel premise but not exactly one the world has been calling out for. “Do you know how many times I’ve played drunk?” Cooke says to his lawyer at one point. The implication that he’s being playing the playboy seems to extend to the Playboy models seen on his arm. His lawyer encourages him to live the life for real: “Imagine if Tinto Brass made a film about Saturn City.” This drinking binge climaxes in a bizarre scene in which the wasted pair suddenly become irresistible to women. Of course they do.
Alongside this we get a lurid, conventional superhero story starring Cooke’s Robin figure, Keenan, who has now taken up the mantle. This comes complete with grotesque geriatric kingpin, one minute having sex with a prostitute and shooting her in the back of the head at the point of orgasm, the next pulling all a man’s teeth out and having him raped by a Pulp Fiction-style gimp. “The kind of stuff we used to get from Preacher,” notes a cover. This is intended as praise but instead is true in the sense it is primitive, adolescent schlock. As so often happens with comics, the conservative is presented as the subversive.
When Sex isn’t being offensive, it is being silly or just dull. It lacks all of the wit and subtly of its near namesake Sex Criminals. Which is a shame because superhero suppression is clearly fertile territory in which to sow a psychodrama but Joe Casey’s writing buries this potential and Piotr Kowalski’s newspaper strip-style artwork tramps down the soil. Instead we get Frank Miller’s take on Eyes Wide Shut which is every bit as unappealing as it sounds.
I’m surprised the Puppies didn’t nominate it for a Hugo.
Stay by John Clute (Beccon Press, 2014) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre, 2014) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
The Best British Fantasy 2014, edited by Steve Haynes (Salt Publishing, 2014) and Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One, edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- The Way Inn by Will Wiles (Fourth Estate, 2015) – Review by Gary Dalkin
- The Peripheral by William Gibson (Viking, 2014) – Reviewed by Kerry Dodd
- Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack (Satalye Publishing, 2014) – Reviewed by Shana Worthen
- Saint Rebor by Adam Roberts (NewCon Press, 2015) – Reviewed by Ian Watson
- The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Grasshopper’s Child by Gwyneth Jones (TJoy Books UK, 2014) – Review by Ian Sales
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (Tor UK, 2015) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
Folk’d by Laurence Donaghy (Blackstaff Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Susan Oke
The Good Shabti by Robert Sharp (Jurassic London, 2015) – Review by Gary Dalkin
As you should have clocked by now, I update my BSFA Review editorials when my reviewers post their pieces online on their own sites. Usually this is pretty sporadic but two people have had a bit of a splurge recently so I thought I’d draw attention to the extra goodness now available.
Firstly, Maureen Kincaid Speller:
- Glaze by Kim Curran (Vector #277)
- We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, and Mothership: Tales From
- Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Vector #276)
- Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Vector #275)
- Savage City by Sophia McDougall (Vector #274)
- Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin (Vector #271)
- Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, edited by Carl-Eddy Skovgaard (Vector #270)
- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Vector #267)
- The Immersion Book Of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala (Vector #266)
Secondly, Martin McGrath:
- Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Vector #278)
- Noir and La Femme, edited by Ian Whates (Vector #277)
- Proxima by Stephen Baxter and On A Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds (a shorter version of this review originally published in Vector# 276)
(Apparently I only let Martin review things in pairs.)
Well, it has been a bloody good year for British SF. But, as our BSFA Review Poll shows, it has also been a resurgent year for British SF: it features three debuts and two long overdue returns.
I’m delighted that one of those British debuts jointly tops our poll: The Race by Nina Allan. Over the last decade, Allan has been quietly building one of the most impressive reputations in the short fiction field, culminating in her BSFA Award for Short Fiction last year with Spin. Kerry Dodd reviews the novel overleaf and finds it a “thought provoking and gripping book which peels back the emotive struggles of the human condition, focussing upon the connections between people’s lives, their emotions and, most powerfully, the nature of reality.” Creatively, Allan’s career seems unbounded but the publishing industry needs to catch-up and bring her to a wider audience.
So the community owe thanks to Newcon Press who have been having a pretty good year themselves. As well as The Race, they also published our bronze medallist, The Moon King by Neil Williamson, and the BSFA Award nominated story ‘The Honey Trap’ by Ruth E J Booth (which you can read for yourself in the awards booklet elsewhere in this mailing). Like Allan, Williamson has come up through the short fiction scene – a reminder of how vital Interzone remains as a testing ground for new talent. As Kate Oylett put it in Vector #277: “It’s a real delight to find a debut full-length novel where the characters pop, the situations glisten with sheer wonder and you realise you were meant to have put the book down and gone to bed sensibly a good hour or more ago.”
Nina Allan shares first place with another resurgent writer: Jeff Vandermeer. Who could have predicted that this cult weird fiction author would publish the critical and commercial international science fiction hit of 2014? Still less that it would be a thoroughly contemporary take on the mid-20th Century estrangement of writers like Budrys, Ballard and the Sturgatskys. In our last issue, Dan Hartland described it as “preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive” so perhaps it is slightly surprising it didn’t appear on the BSFA Aware shortlist for Best Novel alongside The Race and The Moon King, particularly given this year’s shortlist ran to ten books due to a tie for fourth place.
Dave Hutchinson published his first short story collection in 1978 but didn’t publish a novel till 2001 and has only followed it up now. Likewise Simon Ings’s last science fiction novel came out in 1999. Europe In Autumn (reviewed by Ian Sales) and Wolves both show that British science fiction has been missing out.
No such pause for Ann Leckie. Ancillary Sword (reviewed by Anne F Wilson) immediately followed up 2013’s international sensation, Ancillary Justice. That debut won the BSFA Award for Best Novel – along with every other award going – and you wouldn’t want to bet against it doing the same again. Or indeed for the Hugo.
Robert Jackson Bennett has probably also got a shout of getting on the Hugo ballot with City Of Stairs, another change of direction for this versatile writer. It was reviewed by Gary Dalkin last issue: “an ambitious and accomplished novel with interesting things to suggest about the relationships between peoples, their cultures and their gods.”
Finally, the poll confirms Frances Hardinge’s position as queen of British children’s fiction, sneaks in a characteristically slippery work by Karen Joy Fowler and heralds the arrival of Renaissance Man Paul Kingsnorth. Let’s hope 2015 is half as good.
BSFA Review Poll
=1) The Race by Nina Allan
=1) The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
3) The Moon King by Neil Williamson
4) Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
5) Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
6) Wolves by Simon Ings
7) City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
8) Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
9) We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
10) The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
- The Race by Nina Allan – Reviewed by Kerry Dodd
- Cataveiro by EJ Swift – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Sibilant Frictive by Adam Roberts – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- Bete by Adam Roberts – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson – Reviewed by Ian Sales
- Irregularity, edited by Jared Shurin – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
- Paradox, edited by Ian Whates – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
- Descent by Ken MacLeod – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- War Dogs by Greg Bear – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Defender by Will McIntosh – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Parasite by Mira Grant – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014)
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
There is a powerful spell of which many of those active in online criticism have for some time been aware. SUMMON VANDERMEER is best effected simply by referring to one of the eponymous scribbler’s works in a published review, blog post or comment; upon conjuring, VanderMeer will manifest, most often offering a faintly under-written defence of even the smallest gripe or criticism, occasionally doing so in a way which leaves the readers of this digital ectoplasm less than confident that the summoned sprite meant to do that.
VanderMeer’s occasionally less than happy history of engaging with his readers makes the rapturous response to his Southern Reach trilogy all the more remarkable. Coming as it does after something of a break from fiction – VanderMeer has in recent years made most (and significant) impact in editorial conjunction with his wife, Ann – the trilogy is as heavy and serious a statement as a returning writer could possibly wish to make. It is a distillation of the genre in which he is now widely regarded as an expert, the Weird; it is an act of astonishingly wide-ranging pop-culture criticism; and it is a furiously well-written, sometimes shockingly evocative story of ecological disaster, adaptation and accommodation.
Set in a world in which a tranche of land known only as Area X has been given over entirely to a weird physics with no identifiable origin or cause, the novel centres on the invisible but impermeable border with few know egresses which separates Area X from all but the ill-fated expeditions sent by the government agency set the task of investigating it, the Southern Reach. In this scenario, VanderMeer plays with issues of perception and penetration: how Area X can and can’t be measured or understood; how it may or may not interact with the world beyond it; and what its creeping weirdness, its inhospitability and indifference to human beings might mean or portend.
The first volume of the trilogy, the quite unusually discomfiting Annihilation, follows the group of women who enter Area X as the Southern Reach’s twelfth expedition (but who are in fact much further along a hidden sequence of secret visits that that). We never learn the names of any of the expedition’s members but instead come to know them by their function: the viewpoint character, for instance, is identified as the biologist and her desire to observe and understand proves ill-suited to the impossibilities of Area X. Most obviously, this includes the subterranean structure on the walls of which is written a recursive prayer-like koan in iridescent script. Counter-intuitively known by the biologist knows as the Tower, it houses the Crawler, a fractal, shifting being which appears to contain the essence of Area X and yet is utterly ineffable. “The longer I stared at it,” bemoans the expedition’s supposed expert on unusual organisms, “the less comprehensible it became.”
VanderMeer is quite brilliant in this first volume at instilling in the reader the disorientation and terror which Area X inspires in the expedition. To read Annihilation is to interface with the inaccessible. VanderMeer’s spare prose presents the illusion of transparency, the suggestion of clarity, but the subjects of his sentences are something other, crafted to be just beyond the extent of his diction: “I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore”. This is crystalline writing, cut and polished to gleam, but what it quite means is unclear. Only by accretion and exposure does the reader begin to piece together a working understanding of events and it is a real achievement of VanderMeer’s that unlike many lesser writers of the Weird he does not revel in incomprehension. He rewards his reader.
He also tests them. In the second volume, Authority, VanderMeer leaves Area X entirely for the confines of the Southern Reach’s headquarters. Here, the protagonist is John Rodriguez, a disgraced former counter-terrorism field agent who prefers the nickname Control. This, of course, echoes Le Carré and, where Annihilation distilled the Weird, at times Authority seems to refract spy fiction and thrillers. This second book may test the patience of some. It feels in many ways less urgent and less alarming than the first, yet I think in its uncanny depiction of office politics it sounds a satirical note which adds a new voicing to the trilogy’s overall euphony.
One of Control’s most creative staff scientists, Whitby, develops a terroir theory of Area X: that, as with wine, “environmental varietals” have conspired to produce specific and unrepeatable effects within its weird boundaries. But the palimpsests of agendas and personalities at the failing Southern Reach lead Control to another conclusion, “finding now in Whitby’s terroir theory something that might apply more to the Southern Reach than to Area X”. That is, Control (again denied a real name) is out of control, both of a territory which systematically and entirely erases all trace of human activity (reshaping it as weird doubles or fatal cancers) and also of the agency designed to contain it. “Topological anomaly?” Control imagines his grandfather scoffing at the term used by his staff to describe the Tower. “Don’t you mean some kind of spooky thing that we know nothing, absolutely fucking nothing about, to go with everything else we don’t know?”
Control’s family have more purchase on this bureaucratic farce than his mere imaginings. Control is Acting Director of the Southern Reach at the behest of his powerful spymaster mother, following the disappearance on an expedition of the previous incumbent. The drifting of the trilogy into the family saga genre can feel like a bridge too far. Control’s mother proves to be an important character and his relationship with her is therefore rather more significant than the queasy attenuation VanderMeer sketches with notable facility for unease. At first they read as another iteration of the trilogy’s over-arching theme that most people want “to be close to but not part of”]; their rapidly apparent plot importance makes the story oddly local for a trilogy constantly skirting the cosmic.
Perhaps, though, we require an anchor: Authority ends with Control and the returned double of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird) finding a fresh entrance into an expanding Area X, which seems if anything more rather than less strange on second encounter. Indeed, the third and final volume of the trilogy, Acceptance, proves both its most ineffable and its most up-front. Told from a range of perspectives – Control, Ghost Bird, the former Director and, most disturbingly of all, the lighthouse keeper in the region that becomes in the course of his story Area X – connections begin to be made. The trilogy rejects the idea that any single one of us can perceive completely and its multi-voice finale attempts to show why.
“There’s nothing to this world but what our senses tell us about it,” insists Control, “and all I can do is the best I can based on that information.”. Control is repeatedly undone by this inflexibility and he passes through these novels rather lost and buffeted; his opposite number is the twin-face of the biologist and Ghost Bird, who seek to inhabit a space as natively as possible. “Area X was all around them; Area X was contained in no one place or figure. It was the dysfunction in the sky […] the heavens and earth. It could interrogate you from any position or no position at all, and you might not even recognise its actions as a form of questioning.”
In the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts has written better than anyone about the ways in which the Southern Reach trilogy in this way reimagines nature writing for our troubled times. What does it mean that our environment is altering in ways we don’t understand, into shapes for which we are not necessarily suited and in a manner that emphasises its indifference to our presence? The expeditions of the Southern Reach are forays fated to doom because they seek human-sized solutions to these questions; VanderMeer’s inexplicable clarity is an idiom suited to disputing this.
But in its lovers and families, its terrorists and spies, its intimate villages and expansive governments, the world of the Southern Reach is also more widely about connection and motivation. In fact, I’d suggest that to read the richness of the trilogy through a purely ecological lens is to deny the potency of its effect. In the lighthouse keeper’s tale there are moments of pure horror – “Sadi spun and twitched and twisted on the floor, slamming into chairs and table legs, beginning to come to pieces” – but it is impossible to challenge Ghost Bird’s welcoming of the inevitable accommodation to come. The simultaneity of the horror and beauty of Area X – that the individual cannot prevail against the universal – is the terror and redemption at the heart of our every interaction.
All of which is to say that the Southern Reach is preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive. We will all in future SUMMON VANDERMEER with markedly less trepidation.
Due to production deadlines, space and my own laziness, this issue of the BSFA Review contains no editorial from me. Instead, here is the lead review.
- Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Get Katja by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Just City by Jo Walton (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- City Of Endless Night by Milo M. Hastings (Hesperus Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Terror And Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, exhibition (British Library, 5 October 2014 to 20 January 2015) and book, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Complete Uncle by JP Martin, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Matador, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
- Half A King by Joe Abercrombie, (Orbit, 2014) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham