Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer


A very immersive and atmospheric Lovecraftian sci fi, with an ethereal narrative that doesn’t intercede a strict boundary between surrealism, post modernism, adventure, horror and suspense.

Area X is a Visitation Zone, an Arkham blasted heath, somewhere along the tropical coast line, presumably in America; For its obfuscating transitional alien ecology, the area is demarcated for exploration, by a shadow (non)government agency called Southern Reach(VanderMeer’s Umbrella Corporation or Dharma Initiative or Wayland Yutani). Our narrative follows the 12th expedition to The Tower, by a team of 4 members, all women, who are identified by their respective roles- a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. What we read in its entirety, are survey notes by the Biologist – an after incident relic, with obvious missing information, like the shaky camera footage from Blair Witch Project. The setting is similar to the classic premise of Lovecraft’s A Mountain of Madness or its space cousin Randezvous with Rama, where a group of individuals are exploring the unexplainable. But here, VanderMeer’s after event narrative doesn’t trust the readers, nor can it be trusted absolutely.

a footage from the movie, as per internet wizards

If you are invested in clear cut explanations and conventional character developments, this book is going to disappoint you colossally. Our Biologist is an unreliable narrator, exploring a House of Leaves, too strange for her brain cells to intercept. The narrative won’t let you identify with any of the characters, except for the biologist, who in turn is openly critical towards the readers. A man might need a name, but clearly these women don’t. In its Hard Boiled Wonderland treatment, none of the characters are addressed by their names, not even among themselves, like they have already detached their personal attachments for the higher purpose of Area X happenings. I found author’s philosophy eerily similar to that of Strugatsky Brother’s Roadside Picnic – explorers investigating stuffs they can’t or will ever possibly comprehend, like cats and dogs trying to make sense of leftovers from a picnic.

For its ‘plot far bigger than the characters’ treatment, I found the biologist monologue genuinely heartfelt, almost in lines with that of Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The digressions in her monologue, the seemingly gratuitous past life side quests, in course of reading, added to the mega narrative confusion, often making sense. VanderMeer’s writing was well crafted, layered and well engineered with fragmentation, anxiety and growing paranoia. The log entries were prosaic yet poignant, and kept definitive character traits of the biologist, from the adjectives she use, to her working explanations of Area X. It corroborated with the unreliability of narrative, for our manifestation of the place, was solely through the biologist pov, who kept detailing the physical and psychological aspects of Area X, as unraveling of some eukaryotic alien biology. Assuaging this limited available research was his highly efficient wordplay, with minimal embellishments; every word and occurrences served a purpose, from the critical linguistics of hypnotic suggestion to the strange writings at Area X, like they were part of a bigger conspiracy. And they were.

440461-alan-wake-xbox-360-screenshot-the-lighthouse-the-safest-placePermanence, I believe, was the biggest luxury in this novel, for all the five(including biologist’s husband) characters, well within their ulterior motives, were found to be perpetually transitioning throughout their progress in survey. Their perception of the alien environment was shaky(the tower? the tunnel?), with memory vacuums created by psychological suggestions. The Area X in itself was full of radically different ecosystems in overlap, constantly rearranging themselves, and the map, the equipments and sponsoring organization were severe misdirections to even begin with. But there was one character that enjoyed the luxury of permanence in this transgressional narrative, The Lighthouse Keeper, though he was finally absorbed by the Crawler. The real time Crawler writings seemed allegorical and biblical to certain extend in its archaic style, luring individuals to a personal purgatory. All these could be taken as suggestions towards a meta-fictional approach, where the unreliable ever expanding nature of Area X can be potentially argued as an allegory towards encroachment of fictional world over author’s imagination.

A lot of the novel felt like playing Alan Wake, or Silent Hill, or like binge watching first season of Lost. Though the environment was unfathomable, the writing kept me on the edge like reading Then There Were None for the first time. But unlike the detective novel, there was no postscript message in the bottle that explained the mystery, and I was left with more questions than answers. Still in a weird way, I found this love letter to the dread and uncanny, thought provoking, excitingly dark, intensively suspenseful and oddly satisfying.

Annihilation is the first installment in Southern Reach Trilogy and is followed by Authority and Acceptance. A 2018 movie is under work as per wiki, with Natalie Portman as the Biologist. So brace yourself for , “oh, this was where Dr. Foster been” Thor jokes.

This post provides a far better review and analysis of the book, spoilers included.

The Defenders by Philip K Dick

This noveletta explores an alternative history scenario where Cold War escalates to full fledged nuclear confrontation. Both US and Soviets move to Underground bunkers, from where they control(barely) the Fallout universe through radiation resistant Terminators called ‘Leadys‘ (I think their name has more to do with radiation shielding element Lead than the verb lead).

Like all other PKD stories this one also offers strong philosophy to contemplate on, from irrationalities of war to dangers of automation to extreme nationalism. The Leadies are proxy soldiers, fighting a war while humanity is safe in their bunkers, much like soldiers fighting for the nationalistic interests while leaders enjoy comfiness and safety. There is a far greater idea of peace through homogenisation implied in the story, and author uses robots(human creation) as mediums to convey it.

This ‘melting pot’ solution, in my opinion, might be able to resolve issues within a demographic of closer cultural ties, but would easily fall short on a global scale of co existance. A more rational and tolerent society that celebrates cultural heterogenity would be my prefered line of world peace. 

The Defenders” is a 1953 science fictionnovelette by American author Philip K. Dick, and the basis for Dick’s 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth.

source : wiki

Nightfall by Issac Asimov

​”If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!”

Lagash is a fictional Earth like planet, with a double Trisolaris situation – system of six suns, that keeps the planet perpetually lit. Lagash-ians have never experienced any darkness during their recorded history of civilization and the system of six suns is pretty much their accepted universe in its entirety. So imagine, how darkness and appearance of millions of stars in sky would affect the people, during the occurrence of an event like night. 
Asimov’s novelette explores the social behaviour and existential crisis during such an event. I found the parallels he kept with Earth fascinating, the cult and legend, the religious extremists and the general panic during a change that people can’t comprehend. I am inclined to believe that Asimov subtley paid a little tribute to Galelio and Bruno, in his narrative as well. The structural similarities between the planets deserves some mention, but I can’t find a way to do that without spoiling anything.
One can be an unkill and ask all sort of scientific enquiries like How multiple gravitational force affect Lagash, Would they have seasons, Won’t eclipses pose heat and quake threats, How does blind people cope with darkness, Or normal people during power failure in an internal office? 
Or just enjoy the story. 

Robert Silverberg later developed the story into a full fledged novel and Asimov himself has committed it to be very much what he intended. I would still advice the novelette first, as none of my fellow readers found the novel largely appealing.

Yama’s Lieutenant by Anuja Chandramouli

​This might be a highly inappropriate analogy, but to me Yama’s Lieutenant atleast in parts, felt like Devil May Cry with Hindu pantheon. Though there is no Virgil for our Dante, he is equipped with two four-eyed hounds from hell, Chandrama and Suryama, for Ebony and Ivory.

The main story follows the adventures of Agni Prakash who has to ‘Odd Thomas’ his way off Arakshas, and keep the balance of both world. The initial real world take easily faded out after protagonist’s recruit, and even sub narratives started becoming dark. I don’t really go well with blood and gore, and this book’s intricately woven hell and hatred did unsettle me. The real mythology is juxtaposed with the main story line through manuscript of protagonist’s sister. I enjoyed the peeling onion treatment, where author kept both the characters as well as the readers under the incentive of a gradually unraveling secret.

For a book by the name Yama’s Lieutenant, I found both Yama and his Lieutenant strangely under developed. It might as well be my usual aversion for the ‘preordained chosen one’ narrative. I really did care for, and enjoyed the little chapters involving Agni and Varu, but the celestial twins, Yama and Yami, were more of an annoyance. Another issue I had was the excessive baggage side characters wore, along with their not so easy to remember mythological names. The far greater allegorical purpose the names serve could be lost for an outside reader.

Transcending mythology to new age, in my opinion, involves plenty of material to work with, but conveying the stories in their might requires a talented story teller, and this author kinda nails it.

I would like to thank the author for the review copy.

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Basically porn.

For no reason whatsoever, at least none that I can comprehend, the story of Lost Girls is set in and around an Austrian Hotel, next to one of the most iconic event of 20th century – Gavrilo Princip taking out the Archduke Ferdinand. Maybe an inside joke on people who say, these things barely require a premise. Plot follows, explicitly and quite graphically, the sexual adventures and experiments of fictional versions of three already fictional female characters- Alice, Dorothy and Wendy (Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of the Oz and Peter Pan respectively). Story line is more or less a sharing activity in retrospection, by their adult selves, at the wake of WW1, aided with artful renderings of their past adventures. Narrative is layered, with definitive visual layout and writing elements for each character. For example, through most of the first book, Alice story line was represented via the looking glass, woods(and her shoes) were a recurring theme for Dorothy and for Wendy, everything around her were a bit Victorian. (Also their first encounter with adventure was interpreted as their sexual awakening.)

Then there is sex, lots of it, in all imaginable/unimaginable permutations and combinations. And, in its entirety, art is not the kind that our teenage self would have loved a peek, or adult self would find erotic (though, many are), but the kind that exhausts you as a reader. Its unapologetically provocative, artistic and didactic, but the prolifically was barely complimenting the plot. I put genuine effort in understanding the nuances in book 1, but by the next installment, the graphic nature transformed my reading into skimping and eventually skipping. By the last book, so called plot felt more like an excuse to slide show the remaining erotic sketches, that Moore and Gebbie had already crafted.

I don’t know where porn stops and art begins, or whether a distinction was even intended here in the first place. Anyway, whatever be the reasons – plot, art, expression, experimentation, provocation, shock et cetera; Lost Girls is quite literally a ‘graphic’ novel where pervaded perversion overshadows all other elements.

These words from Moore himself would give a better understanding towards the inspiration and intentions of Lost Girls.

Certainly it seemed to us [Moore and Gebbie] that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature. Every other field of human experience—even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy—have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]—which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness.

source : wiki

The Arrival by Shaun Tan


‘Beautiful’ would be an overused adjective for this magical visual narrative. There is literally nothing to read in the graphic novel, no written words, no colours, no page numbers; but each panel speaks a lot more than what a conventional paragraph would do.

The graphic novel opens and closes with detailed portraits of people from all over the world, celebrating the diversity and harmony of magical world of immigrants in story.

It is the story of a man immigrating from his strange world to another in search of job and livelihood, leaving his family behind. New beginnings can be scary as well as exciting; the gorgeous art effortlessly conveys conversations, passing of time, flash backs and emotions through our man  and people whom he encounters. Migration and multiculturalism are recurring themes in this book, with every character being like the protagonist sometime in their life, an immigrant looking for a new home, with his/her whole life and dreams in a suitcase. Worlds illustrated in this graphic novel are strange and steampunk-y, with monsters and pokemon like creatures. And everybody speaks distinctly different languages, but it is barely a barrier for the ‘melting pot’ they live in, like how the absence of wordings in the book isn’t a barrier for readers in following the story.

Four pages that capture ‘time’ through simple sequences. This belongs to the flashback back story of one of the character our hero meets, who was the sole survivor of an old war.
Titanic reference, in one panel somewhere after the first arrival. Other similar inspirational throwbacks are there in the book, undecipherable for me though.

In the artist after note Shaun directs to various immigrant anecdotes as his thematic inspiration. There were subtle artistic throwbacks as well towards some of the world’s most famous pictures, like the panel of newsboy announcing Titanic catastrophe. Another aspect I noticed about the art was the meticulous attention for detail, for every time I revisited the book it offered something new, something that made me smile. The panels often panned out into a birds eye view, thus reminding reader of all others who follow protagonist’s same plight and insecurities. Analyzing even from a primitive artistic pov, the sketches are definitely nothing easily reproducible, and the usage of inanimate objects and single focuses to convey passing of time is rather phenomenal and unconventionally cinematic.

This panning out panes are a recurring occurrence in Tan’s visual narrative. First page is from protagonist’s first journey away from his family, the zooming out of perspective represents the departure. Similar usage in second page is a bit more interesting, it captures the similar plight of other immigrants around him, in that apartment complex.
Though this leaf/flower/plant is alien to readers, this single page brightly conveys the sense of time that has been passed through over seasons.

This extensive work of 4 years could easily be completed in 10 minutes, or one could dwell into the side quests for long absorbing it’s cycles of departure, alienation, fear, assimilation and growth. No matter which path you take, you are bound to revisit for the beautiful feels.

/Above video provides a good insight into the mind and artwork of Shaun Tan./

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

the merchant and alchemists gate

Like Old Joseph from Book of Genesis, Fuwaad Ibn Abbas is pleading innocence before Caliph explaining the strange turn of events that resulted in his current predicament. Fuwaad‘s narrative forms the periphery of this novelette, and is centripetally enhanced by three separate stories, whose subtle concatenations are enough to capture readers attention till last page. And it involves time travel and alchemy.

There are two streams that are generally favoured in time travel stories – one where the changes in timeline are retroactive(Heinlein’s By his Bootstraps or Predestination), and the one where they are cumulative(Gerrold’s Man who Folded Himself, or the movie Singularity or Steins Gate). Also there is a third one that does everything the plot demands to, like King’s 11.22.63. Chiang has crafted his tale around the first philosophy, where excising oneself in the past could have implications in future of same timeline, rather than creating another stream of altered reality. I absolutely adored the little details behind working of Gate, and his for-dummies explanation of the same. By keeping the clause of no-past-beyond-manufacturing-date, Chiang was aligning ancient alchemy of his story with Ronald Mallett‘s modern scientific argument, without losing the archaic feeling of former.

There was this translated story vibe around it, like it originally belonged to a foreign folk lore , enriched by centuries of oral tradition. And I loved that. Not to mention the nostalgic Arabian Nights atmosphere the premise invoked. The crux of the story by its ending, felt in close agreement with the ideas of Chiang’s other shorts; particularly What’s Expected of Us: free will might be an illusion and Story of Your Life: the past, future and present are happening now or has happened already no matter the choices you make. Also, Bashaarat‘s shop was a medieval middle eastern Way Station (Clifford Simak) If you squint your eyes into past and look closely.

The time travel plot and story inside a story frameworks were nothing new, but the whole experience stands out, if you can ignore the little preachiness.

“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”


I found a free pdf copy of the story over net in this link.

This Hugo and Nebula winner was originally published in 2007 by Subterranean Press and reprinted in the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (source: wiki)