Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer – A Book Review

Like you, I thought the movie trailer for Annihilation looked very cool, so I thought I’d check out the source material.

When the novel of the same name arrived at my local library, the volume’s slimness surprised me.  At only 195 pages, I knew it would prove a quick read.

Of course, it may be helpful to know this is only the first of a three-book series.  All three collected volumes are known as Southern Reach Trilogy.  The three installments appear to have been published within months of one another, so that could explain the page count.

Whatever the case may be, I have to admit that Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer immediately felt like a bad fit for me.  The prose in this book is … dense.  It’s full of description largely pertaining to foliage and biology.  Also, a first-person narrator delivers the story to us.  I don’t know if it’s Vandermeer’s style or the style of his narrator, but I found the prose clunky and difficult to follow.  To me, the sentences did not flow very smoothly which forced me to read and reread in a way that frustrated.

When Vandermeer’s characters spoke, this issue largely disappeared.  The dialogue flowed freely and felt natural.

The plot itself interested me enough, but things moved rather slowly.  In my opinion, there is no real “revelation” that makes the book a worthwhile, satisfying experience.  Perhaps the other two books provide this experience.  I’m not sure I’m inclined to read them, though.

The good news is that, as I said, this is a very slim book and so you can easily read it in a day or two and prove me wrong.  I have been wrong about books before.  I’ve even reread a few books to find that my opinion of them changed completely.

I still plan to see the movie, but, if I’m being honest, not much that I’ve seen in the trailers evokes much from what I read in the book.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – A Book Review

As you know, I’m honored to be a teacher by day.  An esteemed student recommended this book to my class, and he made it sound so exciting, so imaginative, and so flat-out fun that we all wanted to read it.  I ran to my local library and picked up a copy as soon as I could.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Snow Crash is that it debuted in 1992.  In many ways, this book is downright prophetic in regards to technology, specifically the internet.  It absolutely nailed what was then considered the near future.  I dare you to read this book and not see a world that came to realization.

The plot is … complicated.  Hmm.  How best to succinctly explain?  Okay, here goes: Hiro Protagonist is an underachieving hacker who spends his days delivering pizza for the Mafia.  However, he’s also a master swordsman responsible for much of what’s called the Metaverse, which is what we would call a world of virtual reality.  There’s a new virus attacking those most adept at coding, especially hackers.  It’s called Snow Crash.  However, this virus may not be new — it may be the remnant of something from Biblical times.  There’s so much more, but that’s the driving thread of the book.

Every single sentence in this book made me work, and I mean that as a compliment.  It’s so unique, so original that the reader cannot take a single word off — it demands your concentration at all times.

My only complaint is that the book seems to end rather abruptly compared to the epic tale preceding it.  Frankly, the ending struck me as almost anticlimactic, but that seems fairly consistent with the author’s sensibilities.  Mr. Stephenson seems like a writer that refuses to follow convention, especially when it comes to endings.

Some books require no necessary rereads.  Snow Crash is NOT one of those books.  I intend to read this book again, and probably a third time as well, in order to fully grasp it.

If you’re looking for something completely unique and unlike virtually anything else you’ve ever read, I suggest Snow Crash.  Though it will remind you of The Matrix and Ready Player One, you must remember that this came first.

 

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Read “Terminal Synchronicity” – My Latest Short Story

Terminal Synchronicity: A Short Story by [Foley, Scott William]

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In this brief tale, Eli and Molly collide in a terminal. They are ecstatic to see one another again, yet both state that such a meeting is impossible. Their love has seemingly conquered time and space, but how? And for how long? (Science fiction/Fantasy/Love)

Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – A Book Review

As you know, I loved the film Arrival.  As is my habit after watching a great movie based on a book, I immediately acquired the source material.  It turns out that Stories Of Your Life and Others is actually a short story collection and “Story Of Your Life” is specifically the installment that served as Arrival’s source.  However, there are seven other shorts in this collection by Ted Chiang, and they are all imaginative and thought-provoking.

Chiang trained as a computer scientist, and it shows in his writing.  He is very precise, very analytical, and very scientific.  Yet he also has a great sense of character, pacing, and detail.  I especially appreciate that he seems to know the appropriate time to really delve deeply into scientific jargon, but he also knows the right time to pull back and simply let the story flow.

I would not say that all of his stories are purely science fiction, by the way.  “Tower Of Babylon,” for example, explains the science behind building a structure reaching to the heavens, but I would say it is more commentary about the human spirit than anything.  “Hell Is the Absence Of God,” a story about the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences following sporadic visits by actual angels, is also far more about what it means to be human than anything else.

In fact, at their root, most of Chiang’s stories in this collection are investigating the plight of the human condition.  He tackles love, greed, beauty, sin, justice, obsession, honesty, and even eternal life, but he does so in extremely smart, original, and imaginative ways hidden within the genres of science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy.

If you enjoy innovative, thought-provoking stories, I highly recommend this collection.  They are all fairly complex reads, but well worth the effort.  You will like some more than others, but each is to be appreciated in its own way.

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

“Phasks” – My Latest Short Story On the Nook and Kindle

Phasks: A Short Story by [Foley, Scott William ]

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They say technology will one day tear us apart, but for some, it will bring us together, especially in the case of two young women traveling to a Jill Thompson fan club meeting. Set in the near future, this short story is optimistic, innovative, and humorous as it propels today’s technological trends to the next level. (Science Fiction/Social Commentary/Technology)

The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – A Book Review

A friend recommended The Book Of Strange New Things to me a while back, so when I saw a beautiful hardcover edition in the severe discount bin at my local grocery store, I swept it up without hesitation.  (I’m still trying to figure out why it ended up in a discount bin at my grocery store.  Weird.)

The Book Of Strange New Things is a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure.  But, if I’m telling the truth, it didn’t end quite satisfactorily in my mind.  More on that soon …

The premise is that Peter, a man of 33, has been selected by a clandestine corporate entity to serve as a missionary to an indigenous species on a planet said entity is colonizing.  Peter is very happily married, and while he moved through the vetting process with ease, his wife did not, which results in her having to stay behind.

Both are incredibly devout to God.  They effectively run their own church while Peter’s wife, Bea, also works as a nurse.  Both experienced a difficult past, and it’s amazing Peter even lived long enough to eventually find God.  If I may be so bold, Bea and Peter are the sort of Christians who lead by example.  They do not force God upon people.  They treat people with respect, they administer to people, they expect nothing in return, but if an opportunity comes along to share the Message, they will.  They do not judge, for Peter has plunged lower than most anyone during his previous life.  They do not beat their Bibles.  They love.  They care.  They help.  They share.

Due to their faith and bond, they agree to serve God by sending Peter off to this distant world as Bea stays behind.  Once Peter arrives, his work proves to be far simpler than he imagined.  In fact, the denizens he’s serving are all too willing to have him; they’ve even been looking forward to his arrival!

But soon after Peter settles in on this new world, horrible things begin happening back on Earth.  He and Bea’s faith and love are put to the test in ways they never imagined.  Even their belief in God is strained.

I won’t spoil it any further, but this gives you a good sense of the tone of the book.  It introduces some compelling themes.  The idea of putting God first, before oneself and even one’s spouse, is a conflict of great interest to many.  There are also several mysteries unfolding, particularly in regards to the aliens themselves.  Just why are they so enthusiastic to learn about God?  Why did they specifically request a missionary from the corporation?  What is their motivation?  Furthermore, Peter suffers dismay as he is unfathomable miles from his wife as her world seems to be falling apart.  What is going on back on Earth?  Are things as bad as she says?  Is it even her writing these messages to him?

I appreciate that Peter is quite believable as a man who lived in the gutters before finding God.  Faber had to walk a tightrope in making a missionary who did not come off as too preachy, too stereotypical, too “holier than thou.”  He also came close to making Peter too selfless, too forgiving, and too naive.  Instead, he managed to strike that delicate balance with Peter, and, as a result, created an engaging character for whom we care.

The book moves quite slowly, but not unpleasantly.  Faber spends a great deal of time establishing Peter, Bea, the creatures, the new planet, and even Peter’s coworkers.  He explains just enough to make this colony believable, yet he smartly avoids trying to explain every nuance of the science and technology involved.  Peter is a bit of a amateur when it comes to technology, so it helps to see the world through his eyes.  Things happen, but he doesn’t pretend to understand the science behind it, nor does he particularly care.  He shares his curiosity with the reader, but does not try to focus too much about anything beyond the natives and his mission.  Oh, and Bea.  For the most part.

My only complaint is the ending.  For a book that burns so slowly, I expected a bit more from the conclusion.  On the one hand, we are given some interesting revelations concerning the planet’s inhabitants, but in regards to life back on Earth and Bea, I found myself rather unsatisfied.  I don’t need everything wrapped up in a tight little bow, but I thought Faber could have rewarded the reader a bit more in that regard.

There tends to be a real trend of late with new takes on space travel and “aliens.”  With mature, thoughtful approaches like Arrival and The Book Of Strange New Things, I hope the genre continues to expand and reinvent itself.

I absolutely recommend The Book Of Strange New Things for its characters, themes, creativity, originality, conflict, style, and plot.  My only reservations in recommending it to you are the pacing and the conclusion.

 

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Arrival – A Movie Review

I could keep this review pretty simple by saying this is one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite some time and it also brought me to tears.

Not enough for you?  Okay, I’ll keep going.

The premise of Arrival is that twelve alien ships have arrived across the planet’s surface.  The ships are monolithic.  They look like giant rocks.  They defy every preconceived notion of “space ship” that we have previously employed.  Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics and written communication expert.  She is recruited by the military to take point on trying to talk with the aliens.  Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, and he’s a mathematician partnered up with Banks to try to make sense of what the visitors want from humanity.

This is a quiet, understated film with almost quaint special effects when compared to all the star wars and super heroics we’ve witnessed.  Though technically science fiction, the movie deeply explores the ideas of time and space, communication, the modes by which we communicate and how that influences communication in and of itself, and ultimately the human condition (hence, the crying).

I appreciate this movie because it introduced fresh takes on old ideas.  Yes, we’ve seen movies about aliens landing on our planet and humans trying to figure out what they want.  But I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie quite this personal.  I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie with a linguist actually explaining important ideas about oral and written communication.  At one point, Louise actually begins to diagram a sentence.  On screen.  For several minutes.

The film also defied expectations in regards to the aliens themselves.  It recognized that life forms existing outside of our planetary environment would likely look, act, and sound nothing like us.  To even assume an alien would have eyes, a nose, ears, or a mouth in the conventional sense is awfully presumptuous on our part.  To believe that aliens will speak the way we do and write the way we do is probably childish.

Nuanced, touching, smart, though-provoking, and beautifully executed, I could easily see Arrival earning a “Best Picture” win.  It’s that good, albeit unobtrusively so.  I absolutely recommend this movie to anyone who loves a good story.

At this point, I’m going to discuss some issues concerning the movie that will unquestionably ruin it for you if you haven’t yet seen it.  I implore you to watch it now and come back to finish this piece if so inclined.  Do not forge ahead without having seen the movie, though, I implore you.

Last warning.

Arrival delved into some very serious aspects of the human condition.  It demanded we investigate the philosophical aspects of love versus duty, happiness versus heartbreak, selfishness versus selflessness.  In the end, I drew the conclusion that there is no real distinction.  We endure all of those things all the time, just as the aliens existed perpetually at all times outside of our own space and time continuum.

The movie broke my heart in the beginning when it seemed that Louise previously lost her daughter to illness.  Juxtaposing the line “Come back to me” when the child is born and then when the child dies reduced me to tears.  But when we learn that Hannah is not of the past, but rather of the future, Louise’s plight becomes all the more heart-rending.

When Louise ultimately grasps the visitors’ language, she gains their ability to access consciousness throughout an entire existence.  This gift from the aliens allows Louise the knowledge necessary to help the world avoid catastrophe, but it also informs Louise as to her exact future, and that her future daughter will die an awful death.  She learns that Ian will be the father of that child, and that Hannah’s terminal illness will drive husband and wife apart.  Yet, she chooses to love.  She opts to hang on to the fleeting moments she knows she will have with both Ian and Hannah.  She decides the time she has with Hannah will be all the more precious with the awareness she’s been granted.

For her to take on that pain, to accept a child’s death, to willingly endure such calamity … it drove me to tears.  I can’t lie—I hid in the shower and wept like a baby.  I can’t imagine ever having to make such a decision … Yet, Louise chose love.

However, today, as I kept thinking about the movie, I grew angry at Louise.  There’s a moment in the film when Louise is explaining to Hannah why Ian is looking at his daughter differently (this is after they’ve separated).  Louise explains that Ian is angry because she made a decision without his involvement.  We’re to presume that when Louise accepted her future, when she reciprocated Ian’s love, she did not tell him that this would lead to a child that was destined to die far too young.  I think withholding that sort of information would detract any marriage.  So I became angry with Louise.  First and foremost, I disliked her for being so selfish—for choosing to enjoy the brief time she has with Hannah rather than to never experience Hannah at all.  Hannah never had a choice.  (Nor do any of our children.  They are all the victims and/or beneficiaries of circumstance.)  For her to put Hannah through such torment … to thrust her child into a broken home and a terminal illness … it made me furious.  Also, to make that choice on Ian’s behalf and to preclude him from having a voice in the matter … that upset me as well.

Can you tell I’m a father of two children whom I love more than anything in this world?

However, upon further reflection I realized Louise never had a choice at all.  I say this for two reasons.  The first reason is simpler than the second, and it is the fact that if she didn’t follow through with the prescribed future revealed to her then she would not have gained the knowledge that she used in the moment of the film’s story to circumvent disaster with the Chinese and the visitors.  Each moment of the future exposed to her must occur in order for the present to survive.  Without the present, there will be no future.  She never truly had a choice.  She chose her own suffering, Hannah’s suffering, and Ian’s suffering, rather than make the world suffer.

Yet, the second reason negates the first.  The visitors say they have a weapon for us, which they actually intend to mean “gift.”  They say they will give us this gift so that in 3,000 years we can help them in return.  For the aliens, our perception of linear time has no value.  They live outside the notion of our “beginning, middle, and end” time stream.  Like their language, everything is happening, has happened, and will happen at the exact same moment.  They see all, know all, and experience all in the same moment.  Keeping that in mind, once Louise attained their unrestricted sense of perception, she lost all power of choice.  Future Louise exists in tandem with present Louise, which makes the latter powerless to change the course of the former.  I suppose some would call it a sort of “predestination.”  When looked upon through that lens, I cannot be angry with Louise any more than I can be angry with my own future self.  My only advantage is that I have no idea what glory or tragedy awaits, whereas Louise knows exactly what’s in store for her.

It’s been awhile since a film moved me as much as Arrival.  I hope it means as much to you as well.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)