Jeff VanderMeer

Book cover

OK, I admit it: I read this book only after seeing the preview for the upcoming movie version with Natalie Portman. (After reading it, I don’t think I will go to the movie, but that is due to not wanting visuals/audio of some creepy scenes rather than any quality judgment.)

I was torn on the rating for this book. I really appreciated it for the author’s attempt to write something different from the standard genre style. I’d definitely call it a sci-fi/horror crossover, for one thing. While reading it I was constantly thinking of parallels to other works, in a good way. The strongest influence I discerned was from Tarkovsky’s movies “Stalker” and “Solaris” (the former of which I’ve seen, the latter of which I’ve only read about), and maybe secondarily, Michael Crichton’s Sphere. In all of these works, the characters deal with a mysterious environment that is dangerous but also seemingly able to grant boons, and that seems to respond in some way to the thoughts of humans in it. Like Solaris, there is even (mild spoiler) an element of the environment resurrecting clones of dead people, as well as giving people supernatural healing abilities. And in all of the stories there is a strong element of psychological suspense from the characters not fully trusting the others they are with. As with “Stalker” (and for example Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World EotW chapters), the characters are not given names, which gives the story a sense of abstraction. The author also makes some interesting stylistic choices. For example, pretty often the characters make odd or overly specific distinctions about language–the one I remember in particular is that one character sees something and tells the protagonist “it looked like a body or a person,” and the protagonist narrates that she didn’t tell her interlocutor that a body could be a person. This definitely adds something to the atmosphere, though it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what–perhaps it is a sense that in Area X, it is simultaneously very important to take care over what you say, and very difficult to speak accurately.

On top of all this, it’s a tremendously page-turning read. I was glad I had a long flight to read it on. There were two serious “oh shit” moments from twists I wasn’t expecting. And the text written on the walls of the Tower (a main plot element that is revealed very early) is creepy as fuck.

So all that said, what didn’t I like about it? Some mild spoilers ahead. First, I thought the psycho-drama could have been a lot stronger, and failed to deliver on the initial promise. It was revealed way too early that the Psychologist was using hypnotic suggestion on the others, and overall I didn’t like that hypnotic suggestion was in play at all, because I think that run-of-the-mill lies, deception, and plain old reticence make for much more interesting drama. Relatedly, I think the non-narrator characters die off too quickly, which extinguishes this dramatic element. By the climax, the narrator is definitely alone, which I thought was too bad. And I guess I was disappointed that the Crawler (one of the key monsters) was actually revealed, although the author does a good job of keeping it mysterious even so. By contrast, the moaning creature remains more unknown and as a result remains way creepier!

The second main thing I didn’t like was that I thought the ultimate message of the book was fundamentally anti-intellectual. The protagonist, despite being a biologist (indeed, she is only called The Biologist), ends up pretty much giving up the attempt to understand the nature of Area X, in favor of something more like religious communion with it. To me it was sort of the polar opposite of, for example, “Arrival,” where even though the heptapods remain largely beyond our comprehension, the protagonist perseveres in her struggle to understand and make a connection with them. I guess I prefer science-positive sci-fi! To be fair, maybe there are different ways of reading the message–perhaps we as readers are not really intended to approve of The Biologist’s choices. And also, I’m aware that this book is part of a trilogy, and is perhaps not meant to stand fully on its own. Right now I am not planning on picking up the second book, although I wouldn’t rule it out at some point.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars