Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Maoism (2019) by Julia Lovell

Book Review
Maoism: A Global History (2019)
by Julia Lovell

    Anyone who considers themselves interested in world affairs needs to take an interest in China, periodt, as they say.    And if you are going to take an interest in the history of China, in its people, and the issues that face it today, Chairman Mao is a great place to start.  No one is more responsible for China in 2019 than Mao.  Lovell, rather than turning out another biography, takes a look at the movement he spawned, Maoism, and the underappreciated role it has played in various, often extremely bloody third world revolutionary movements (and some extremely strange and non violent first world intellectuals) in the 20th century. 

  Her project requires going to some less-understood places of the globe- with substantial chapters on southeast Asia, Peru and Nepal.  Somehow, Albania doesn't make the cut, but she does include chapters on Africa and the west.  Often times, the historical irony lies close to the surface, as in the case of the Shining Path from Peru, a peasant glorifying intellectual-hating Maoist movement 100% founded by a group of university professors and largely populated by urban elites.   Lovell is providing a useful service in that China itself has done everything possible to obscure this earlier, activist history in favor of the current stance of being a benign, non-judgmental of friends of governments everywhere, left, right and center.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Annihilation (2014) by Jeff VanDermeer

Image result for natalie portman annihilation
Natalie Portman played "the biologist" in the 2018 film version of Annihilation by American author Jeff VanDermeer
Book Review
Annihilation (2014) 
Book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff VanDermeer

   If I had to pick on sci-fi representative for "best science fiction book of the 21st century," I'd pick The Three-Body Problem, the first book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Liu Cixin.   The Three-Body Problem, published in the original Chinese in 2008, wasn't published in English translation until 2014, the same year as Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, was published by American author Jeff VanDermeer.  The Southern Reach trilogy has proved a spectacular success, with the combination of popular and critical acclaim that often coincide with canonical status.   Science fiction has a small but enduring place in the canon of modern literature, with a two to three writers a decade that achieve lasting regard outside the genre itself.

  So, Liu Cixin is one of those authors, but the second slot is still open, and VanDermeer, and American writer and biggest success of the so-called "New weird" literary movement makes a case for his presence as that second representative of hard science fiction.   I hadn't heard of the New weird genre until I read VanDermeer's wikipedia page, but I was struck by the citation of H.P. Lovecraft on a major influence on VanDermeer and other practitioners of that sub genre, because for me, Annihilation is deeply influenced by the Lovecraftian technique that I like to call "nameless horror" where the reader doesn't really get a clear idea of what is going on because the inevitably unreliable narrator has his or her mind melted by some force of evil beyond comprehension.

  This influence becomes clearly the further the reader gets into the Southern Reach Trilogy, which I managed to mainline during a couple of long drives to the desert this month in Audiobook format.  I suck up genre type Audiobooks- whether science fiction or crime fiction, like I'm drinking a milk shake, with none of the discipline required to make it through a similarly lengthed work of literary fiction or non fiction.

  To say that I gobbled up Annihilation and the other two books isn't to say that I fell in love with them.   Like much genre fiction, it is hard to do more than hint at the major plot points since the spoilers are the plot.  The Lovecraftian obfuscation becomes particularly prominent after Annihilation, which is the best of the three books in the trilogy by a country mile.  The final two books do little to extend the appeal of the first book and the reader has to get all the way through the second volume before any of the characters refer to the mysterious "Area X" a self-contained biological free-fire zone where DNA mutates at an astonishing rate.

   I had seen the generally well regarded movie version- starring Natalie Portman as "the biologist" and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) before listening to the trilogy, and I went back and watched it again after, gaining a new appreciation for the film, which certainly should be an asset to any argument that Annihilation may obtain canon level status as a representative of science fiction in the early 21st century. 

   I can imagine reaction varying with the level of familiarity an individual reader has with H.P. Lovecraft.  If you know enough about Lovecraft to make jokes about his style- epitomized by the "nameless, creeping horror" that runs through most of his stories, you will likely appreciate Annihilation but not be wowed, whereas, if you've never read Lovecraft, you very might well love Annihilation.

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