Category Archives: First Contact

Sequel City Part 3 – The Southern Reach Trilogy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Dammit, all good things have to come to an end. First it was the brooding yet uplifting Last Policeman series and now, I am sorry to say, Jeff VanderMeer’s dark, unsettling and gleefully weird Southern Reach trilogy. A prolific anthologist of strange tales and accomplished author in his own right, VanderMeer has a knack for knowing exactly what is going to send shivers up your spine and have you not quite reaching for the light switch so much as wondering what potential consequences such a seemingly innocent act might entail. The first two books of the series seemed to distill this ability into the crafting of a wonderfully original mythos, one which lurks in the most primitive parts of your brain long after the book is consigned to the freezer. A swift recap is in order…

In Annihilation we were introduced to Area X, a mysterious stretch of coastland on America’s eastern seaboard. Cut off from the surrounding world by an invisible barrier with only one entrance, the zone is the subject of intense study. Groups of explorers are sent to chart the disturbance but few return. Those who do are not the same, suffering from memory loss, personality changes and incurable tumours. Their reports, where they exist at all, are patchy at best and edging towards hallucinatory. We join the action as the twelfth expedition begins their journey. Known only by their job titles the group enters Area X and finds themselves in a thoroughly twisted world full of abandoned dwellings, a ghostly lighthouse, strange noises and an unearthly creature, the crawler. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Part two, Authority, took us back outside Area X to the Southern Reach, a government agency charged with investigating the anomaly. Despite the bizarre disturbance being left behind the weirdness is ratcheted up a few notches both by the impersonal and paranoid aspect of the Southern Reach and by the thoroughly transformed biologist from the ill-fated twelfth expedition. Under interrogation by the agency and now calling herself Ghost Bird, she is a link to Area X which seems to draw its warping influence ever closer to the outside world.

And so to Acceptance. Once more VanderMeer manages to pull on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of imagination and pushes the unease factor to maximum levels. We’re now caught jumping between times as we are filled in on the back story of the lighthouse keeper and the Southern Reach’s former director who, it transpires, was one of the twelfth expedition’s members. In present day we find ourselves following Control (the current director), Ghost Bird and Grace, the former director’s assistant as they make a final journey into Area X. By cutting up the narrative between five widely varying viewpoints and three distinct times we are never given a chance to settle down and recover our nerves. As the fractured narrative unfolds revelation is piled upon revelation, always threatening to throw some light on exactly what is going on, but only teasing and then shrouding everything in yet more darkness.

It’s impossible to read these books out of sequence, it’s best to get that straight right away. However, when consumed as intended they add up to a transcendent literary experience. You learn to trust nothing you are being told and to expect anything. In this receptive state of mind VanderMeer has a ball restructuring your psyche and twisting your thoughts back on themselves. Each installment has its own distinct flavour and is terrifying and unnerving in an entirely different way, but they roll together utterly seamlessly. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen very often. I can only urge you in the strongest terms to get on board right now.

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Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Echopraxia by Peter WattsReview: Echopraxia by Peter Watts (Tor, 2014)

Note: Thanks to NetGalley and Tor for providing the ARC of this title.

So, a couple of weeks back I reviewed Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I drooled over on account of its multiplicity of serious scientific and philosophical themes underlying the sci-fi dressing. Plot-wise it told a first-contact story, an alien intelligence arriving first to take a snapshot of us from orbit using countless tiny, disposable probes (Firefall) and then simply content to linger in the cold outer reaches of the solar system. Inevitably a recon mission was launched, teamed by genetically altered human beings and a vampire (go read the review) and powered by a beam of anti-matter sent by Icarus, essentially a giant solar cell in close orbit around the sun. Things… don’t go to plan.

Rewind the tape a few years. Echopraxia kicks off in the deserts of Oregon in the aftermath of Firefall and the subsequent attempt to contact the force responsible. One of the few non-altered (‘baseline’) humans left, Daniel Brüks is a biologist running from a shady past and consigned to a hermit’s life tracing modifications spreading through the DNA of wild animals. Unfortunately he finds himself in the middle of a crossfire between a religio-scientific order in their tornado-powered temple and an escaped vampire with a bodyguard of philosophical zombies. Before he knows it he discovers they’re all really on the same side, the common enemy being non-baseline humans, and he’s caught up in their flight from a devastating biological agent launched into the compound. Confused and angered in equal measure he’s nonetheless stuck with his saviours/captors as they head for Icarus and escape from those hounding them. Icarus will be safe. Icarus will be empty. Or will it?

Echopraxia isn’t quite the extreme mindfuck that was Blindsight, where heavy-duty idea-cannons blasted you from every page. There’s a lot more straight-up story-telling here, much in the same ‘creeping horror in confined spaces’ vein of it’s predecessor but lightened with more in the way of action and pacing. It’s pure sci-fi which is very much enjoyable for its own sake, regardless of whether you’re up to speed with its history. There’s a lot going on here, from the mysterious monastic superhumans to the vampire and her entourage, from Brüks’s interaction with the crew to the mysterious marine Jim Moore. And once they reach Icarus and the shit hits the fan then it switches gear into full-on space thriller.

That’s certainly not all though. Peter Watts seems to be Neal Stephenson-esque in the wealth and diversity of knowledge he brings to his writing. Here we’re treated to a more detailed exploration of his vampire concept, a truly original and refreshing one. There are more musings on alien anatomy and the potential forms which life may take, stretching the very definition of the word. There are spacecraft and power sources, genetic jiggery-pokery and cybernetic augmentation. Basically twice as much standard fare as you’d expect in any book this size.

It’s the more philosophical meanderings which really rope me in though. This time he engages the intellect on two main fronts; free will and faith. On the first topic he comes down very much in the camp of accepted scientific opinion. Free will, as much as we would love to possess it, is purely illusory and something which we cling to out of habit rather than as a reflection of how the universe really operates. We behave as though we can make choices independent of the stimuli presented to us, we expect others to do the same as evidenced by our justice systems, but this is all purely anachronistic. Not a popular viewpoint, but truth isn’t democratic. No disagreements from me on this count.

His exploration of the nature of faith as opposed to reason is very interesting. In fact it almost infuriated me at times when he seemed to be genuinely propounding faith as a virtue, as opposed to the harmful vice I believe it to be. It wasn’t until reaching the end of the book that I discovered he seems to share my mischievous joy in playing devil’s advocate and chasing any line of reasoning to its ultimate end. The notions he raises, of reason reaching an impasse and being supplanted by something far more akin to religious faith are interesting enough in themselves to be able to suppress my natural revulsion at the thought.

Anway, long story short – Echopraxia is a very worthy successor to the wonderful Blindsight and one which may be more accessible to casual readers. It’s not shy of asking you to engage your brain at a serious level but certainly not to the point where it’s going to burn you out before the end. If anything it’ll leave you refreshed and churning with fresh ideas. Oh, and the notion of reality and an operating system, consciousness as a bug and god as a virus? Well played sir, well played…

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Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight by Peter WattsReview: Blindsight by Peter Watts (Tor, 2006)

“The signal is a virus.”

I’ve said before that one of my greatest joys is finishing a book only to discover that doing so has massively increased my reading list. When an author has me chomping at the bit to explore every nook and cranny of the arguments they’ve made or the concepts they’ve considered then I truly feel I’ve got my money’s worth. But this is usually something limited to non-fiction titles – science, history, what have you. I’m a bibliography hound, sniffing out every paper trail till I get to the end. But how many sci-fi books contain such a detailed list of references? Well, Blindsight for one…

Blindsight is a hard sci-fi novel by marine biologist Peter Watts, author of the Rifters trilogy. Near-future Earth is a place populated by a very different variety of humans. Augmentations and genetic improvement are the norm, increasing specialisation to the point where it takes a special class of being simply to convey to others what is going on with the rest of their species. Siri Keeton is one such being, a synthesist, called into service for his race following Firefall, our first hint that there might be something out there other than ourselves. The incident, essentially a harmless intergalactic candid snapshot, spurs a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system in order to initiate first contact, understand the threat (if any) and take the necessary steps.

As soon as the crew – Keeton, a vampire (to be explained…), a one-man army, a sense-enhanced biologist and a linguist housing several distinct personalities to allow for parallel problem solving – make contact with the alien entities they realise that there are several insurmountable problems, chiefly involving communication. Their position in the Oort cloud denies them contact with Earth (a seven-month signal delay isn’t ideal). Furthermore the alien craft announcing itself as Rorschach seems to be talking but the linguist seems to be convinced it’s little more than a philosophical zombie at best, something displaying outward signs of consciousness but lacking any true conscious experience. Communicative or not, the crew soon makes exploratory forays into the massive ship/being and things rapidly deteriorate from mysterious to oh-fuck-let’s-get-out-of-here. Except they can’t, and the vampire crew member is acting a little… odd.

So that’s the set-up but it honestly doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s going on in Blindsight. The characters and their situation do their job in moving the story forward – and do it truly beautifully thanks to Watts’ compelling writing. The action is seen through Keeton’s eyes in a rather unique fashion. Chosen for the mission by virtue of his skills at communicating the motivations of others and dispassionately observing events around him, he is the natural choice for the book’s narrator. As the action wears on though his neutrality and reliability come under the scrutiny of the vampire Sarasti, folding the narration in upon itself. However this is just a backdrop for the real content. It’s a book of huge and intellectually taxing ideas, truly deserving of the hard sci-fi tag. There is no aspect of this world left unexamined and it’s certainly not done in a patronising ‘Alien Taxonomy For Dummies‘ kind of way. No, the meat of the book feels more like an in-depth discussion with a specialist in a bewildering variety of fields.

I’m not going to hammer on at length but there were a few real highlights for me. Firstly his conception of Rorschach and the developments which take place through its growth and eventual maturity are staggeringly original and quite unsettling in their implication. The craft’s attempts at communication seemed to echo in my head with the voice of HAL9000 and that was the best of it. This living ship, soon replete with its own hive-minded ‘crew’, for some reason had me thinking of Event Horizon and the unease which that movie stirred. It’s from this thread that I gleaned the line at the top of the review – it’s possible that our very act of broadcasting meaningless conversation through the ether might be misconstrued as a hostile act by an alien creature.

And then there’s the whole vampire thing. Yes, I’m sure that put some people off but bear with it. Blindsight‘s take on the evolutionary origins of vampirism, right down to the scientific explanation behind their aversion to crucifixes, is a masterstroke far above the lower depths of modern bloodsucker fiction. But why include them in the first place? Well, vampire genes implanted into normal humans (remember their longevity?) is a great way to get around the temporal restrictions of long-distance space travel…

The icing on the cake though is the main intellectual thread continuing through the entire book, a debate on the concept of sentience as opposed to intelligence and on the nature of consciousness itself. What is this thing we call consciousness? Is it really there at all, is it just a self-emergent phenomenon arising from particular configurations of matter, and above all what the hell is it for? This is no superficial treatment; as a philosophy graduate I can tell you he gives the topic a hell of a beating and should have you pondering it a long time after the last page. And this is what I mean by the increasing reading list – I’ve tagged three books on the subject of consciousness alone for future consumption on the basis of his very welcome explanatory appendix.

I’m just beginning to realise that I can’t truly do this book justice in a short review. It’s sci-fi for thinking types, that’s for sure – a background in basic biology, physics, computing, psychology and philosophy will serve you well here, although that list is just for starters. It’s clever, dark, funny and still very human despite everything else, plus it’s packed with little references to genre classics for the eagle-eyed reader (They’re made out of meat!). Give this book a try and give your mental musculature a well-deserved workout. I’ll be back in a week or two with a review of the soon-to-be-released sequel…

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