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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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Filed under Bizarro, Fantasy, First Contact, Science Fiction

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Authority by Jeff VanderMeerRewind a little… A couple of months back I reviewed Annihilation, a book which came out of nowhere and scrambled my psyche into an unrecognisable configuration. Told as a series of journal entries, a literary documentary, it followed a team of four individuals into Area X, an inexplicable patch of land on America’s coast surrounded by a force field of sorts. Entering Area X is a trial, only possible through hypnosis. Surviving there is a struggle against both the environment and your own slowly suffocating sanity. Exiting is a delayed death sentence. The hallucinatory qualities of the novel, particularly the unease created through being narrated in the first person by an increasingly unsure and unhinged biologist brought to mind the very best masters of the stranger realms of fiction.

Cut to Authority. We’re once again safely outside Area X and plunged into the inner workings of Southern Reach, the government organisation responsible for monitoring the alien zone and dispatching expeditions. The biologist from the previous expedition is locked in a cell and undergoing examination after examination. Her former leader, the sinister psychologist, was none other than Southern Reach’s director travelling incognito in search of unnameable ghosts. Arriving to fill her shoes is a man naming himself, somewhat amusingly, Control. In his way stands the former director’s assistant Grace, ready to launch every obstacle she can into his path for reasons not explored until later in the story.

Authority starts off from a much more conventional narrative standpoint than its predecessor. Outside Area X there is at least some degree of normalcy but let’s face it, life on the border of a geographical/dimensional anomaly is never going to be what you expect. And of course the strangeness starts creeping in before you know it. Control’s bizarre insistence on his nickname and the conversations with his own controller put things off-kilter from the get-go. Then there is the former director’s office, housing surprises in every nook and cranny.

Where Annihilation went for full-bore mindfuckery straight off the bat, Authority chooses to bide its time and build an ever-mounting sense of dread and insecurity. Every interaction between people is shrouded in layers of hidden meaning, no-one speaks straight and even the simplest language serves only to further confuse issues. And it’s not just about the people. It seems that the warped reality of Area X is infecting the Southern Reach itself and there is a moment towards the climax which had me checking over my shoulder and scratching non-existent itches.

Given the high standard set by the first in the Southern Reach trilogy (the final installment lands in September) it’s a huge relief that Authority manages to not only keep up the pace but also raise the stakes even higher. Serving up more of the same would have been easy for VanderMeer but would have felt too claustrophobic, just too much. Taking the action back to the Reach and utterly switching styles was the perfect move, allowing us to examine his still-growing mythos from a fresh angle. Here’s hoping that part three lives up to my now insanely high expectations. I’m already preparing a dimly-lit room full of creepy ambient noise for the event…

Find a copy Authority on IndieBound

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Filed under Bizarro, Science Fiction

Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis

Dead Pig Collector by Warren EllisReview: Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis (FSG  Originals, 2013)

Ever wondered how they do it? Those people you hire to execute your spouse, business partner, rival or whoever happens to have stoked the fires of vengeance within you? For starters there’s the dirty deed itself, the taking of a life. Requires something of a detached personality don’t you think? But then there’s the clean-up. I mean just think of the various fibres and fluids composing a human body. We’re wrapped in cloth, bound by skin, motivated by muscle, supported by bone, vitalised by copious amounts of blood, directed by grey matter. And the excreta, don’t forget the excreta. How does one even begin to deal with all of this?

In Dead Pig Collector, Warren Ellis takes us behind the scenes of this most secretive and complex of occupations. Following a day in the life of Mr. Sun we are walked through the aftermath of what happens when sex and business collide. Someone always gets hurt, we know that much. How much pain and what happens next, that’s the question. In this case things take a turn from the unexpected right from the outset but out protagonist, entirely unruffled by his situation, sets about his procedure with an eager spectator in tow.

Weighing in at a mere 40 pages, Dead Pig Collector is more a vignette than anything else, a one-act play drenched in blood, guts and gleeful black humour. Ellis, whose works include the legendary Transmetropolitan comics and, most recently, the wonderfully gritty Gun Machine, has created an immediately believable (and almost likeable) assassin and cleaner in a very brief time. Told entirely in first person narrative, the story puts us right behind his eyes and the ride is alternately chilling and hilarious. Setting and characterisation are kept to the bare bones but the sparse build-up ensures that not a second is wasted on irrelevancies. The result is a lean yet muscular story which squeezes everything it can out of its limited time.

Warren Ellis is already renowned for the gritty, honest feel of his fiction and this outing is no exception. The clinical, process-driven manner in which the titular collector goes about his work both entrances and horrifies, echoing the banality of his namesake Bret Easton Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman. The ease with which he makes the cleaning and disposal of human remains seem entirely commonplace, while human interaction reeks of unease, is quite staggering. Perhaps most disturbing is the level of authenticity brought to proceedings. The tiniest minutiae of the grisly routine are cast under the spotlight, turning Dead Pig Collector into Corpse Disposal 101 . You have to wonder what exactly Ellis did for money before deciding to pick up a pen…

Anyway, I’ll not spend much longer on this since it’s, well, so short. Buy it, spend a fleeting hour reading it, then replace the victim with your own personal nemesis. Trust me, it’s healthy.


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Filed under Humour, Noir, Thriller