Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Southern Reach Trilogy: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

"Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answers long enough."

Any bibliophile knows that there are certain books that often call to us; books that, once picked up, would be incredibly difficult to put down. And long after the spell of its story has been broken, the link can never be severed completely. It would haunt the reader even after that first page has been turned. There are several books that have had the same effect on me, and most of them have been science fiction stories, if not all. I've read at least 12 sci-fi books since 2014, and they have stayed with me, tucked away in the deep recesses of subconscious, both darkening my soul a little as they set me free as well.

When I encountered copies of this trilogy, I was mesmerized of the covers, and had great hopes for the promising story within, seeing that it's critically-acclaimed. I curtailed these expectations, however, when I saw a few of users I follow in Goodreads, and whose reviews I respect, responded in rather lukewarm terms about the first book. That being said, it's just a small consideration, and did nothing at all to hamper my personal reading experience about this introductory novel to the trilogy entitled Annihilation.

I should mention that in the breadth of time I was reading this installment, I took long breaks in between to read some manga, play visual novels, and write dark AU fanfiction for a certain fandom. This is notable, I think, as to why I was able to distance myself from the story and contemplate about it. This is, after all, a short book. Only under two-hundred pages long, I think it can even be considered a novella. Another thing I want to add while I write this review is that I recently watched the New England folktale horror movie The VVitch about two nights ago, and the tone and atmosphere created by that film's cinematography can be likened to the sense of dread and alienation that steadily permeated Annihilation.

The premise of this book may be a tad misleading. It's not a psychological thriller, or even an action-packed suspenseful story. If that's what you're expecting, then Annihilation may come off as dragging and too shortsighted in its perspective. Written in a limited first-person POV, it's more or less something of a slow-burning chronicle of the twelfth expedition composed of anonymous four female experts in their field; a psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor and biologist. Readers see the events unfolding through the eyes of the biologist. All that we know of the unfamiliar landscape they are trekking called the Area X is solely dependent on her accounts, and her private inquiries and contemplations about the life she left behind were also a part of these entries. Because the story is told only through one person's accounts, there are aspects to Area X and even the other characters that readers will never know, and that's what makes Annihilation not the easiest book to get into and remain invested in. However, I think author Vandermeer made the best decision to weave the story through one character's perceptions alone, and to choose an unnamed biologist at that.

"There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connection so deep that when they are broken, you feel the snap of the link inside you."

The unnamed biologist in question, I think, was a compelling voice all throughout. With the personality of an introvert whose inquisitiveness and scientific curiosity have made her both endurable and ultimately a tragic, sympathetic character, Annihilation is not so much as an adventure to fight or extinguish an unknown force of nature, as it is more about the grueling mediation concerning fear and loneliness. In fact, the more I read the biologist's chronicle of the events, and the regrets she had to deal with that are made meaningful by the horrors and alienation she had to face, the more I imagine her as the explorer Rousseau from the TV show Lost. Just like that character, the biologist was in Area X for scientific research and data gathering, only to find herself stranded with a crew who more or less she could not trust or truly know. The biologist soldiers on, however, driven by her innate desire to investigate, and the dire lack of options of survival offered to her. 

Area X may be an enigma that this biologist can't even fathom as she walked on its deceptive thresholds and climb down its caverns, but readers will at least find comfort in the knowledge that they're getting to know the woman who is leading the way of the expedition, even if she has no idea where she is going. And that is ultimately how the majority of life must feel like for humans who lived thousands of years ago, surrounded only by the wilderness and unknown species of creatures. Vandermeer struck that primitive chord in me. 

As someone who grew up in these contemporary times during an industrialized age with constant technological advancements, I would often take for granted that there are grander mysteries outside the comforts and luxuries I'm surrounded with. All of us would do that; safe and content in our cities and homes to even bother to track back where life on earth all began, and where it might lead. The expeditions by the Southern Reach to demystify the splendors of the rich ecosystem of Area X is, at this point in the first book, a possible sham to cover up the undergrowth of terrors beneath its seemingly beautiful and vast forestry. It's  frightening because to do so is to traverse what is unknowable and beyond human.

"That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality."

Reading Annihilation is almost like watching a documentary, only you become a part of it as it goes on, and each discovery that the biologist would stumble upon is rife with juxtapositions about her own life back before she joined the expedition. Readers will slowly get to know what an individualistic and solitary person she is in spite of being married to a man who is the complete opposite of her inclinations. Readers will recognize too that perhaps her strong stubbornness to claim to her autonomy is the reason why Area X hasn't devoured her as of yet. Her personality and overall countenance about how the world works based on ecosystems and microscopic organisms were things I was engrossed why. I share some of her inherent traits, particularly how solitary she was. It made me wonder how I would react if faced with something incomprehensible as she has that shook her core of beliefs the more she got closer and yet still remain as far from it as when the journey began.

I found her internal struggles to be relatable because of this. After losing her husband to the previous expedition, she was now caught in a battle not to lose herself to Area X. This book presented the Man vs. Nature conflict in such a deft and earnest manner of writing and delivery, whose impact haunted me significantly because its resonance was sharp and almost pitiable. The unnamed biologist resigned to her fate in the end, but not before providing readers her tales of the slow descent among herself and the other members of the crew who became all lost in their own way as soon as they reached Area X.

There is no personal victory to be had in Annihilation. If the title of the book doesn't already give it way, that is. It was, however, a splendid and searing look on the general irrelevance of human life in the composition of the universe as a whole, and how us being granted consciousness may have been an evolutionary failure of our species after all. Humans, burdened with self-awareness, are the only ones plagued by the melodrama and contemplation how alone they truly are in the grander scheme of what had been, and what is yet to come. 

"Has there always been someone like me to bury the bodies, to have regrets, to carry on after everyone else is dead?"


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Webcomics Watch: "NIMONA" by Noelle Stevenson

One of my close guy friends encouraged me to buy a hard copy for this published webcomics series, and I obliged because I heard really good things about it, particularly since Felicia Day herself had recommended it in her The Flog vlog. I've been getting into webcomics lately for this year, and have found great ones so far, and it's safe to say that Noelle Stevenson's endearing series NIMONA is one of the better ones out there, which never ceased to be enjoyable in its 275-paged run, as well as able to possess flashes of brilliance alongside its emotional resonance. I could recommend this to most people because part of Nimona's charm is its niche setting that combines medieval fantasy and science fiction elements. It's essentially set in a land with both magic and science (read: technology).

What made this webcomic such an instant hit, however, is its titular anti-heroine. In an interview online, author Stevenson herself confessed that she liked the idea of Magneto-Mystique villainous partnership in the X-Men movies, and Nimona was partly inspired of this concept. The titular spunky girl in question is also a shapeshifter but one who is not only limited to imitating the forms of humans but also a wide range of creatures both mundane and mythical. The most memorable of which was a panel sequence where she tried to convince the bad-guy genius Sir Ballister Blackheart to hire her as his personal lackey and sidekick:

Stevenson definitely wrote a charming cast of characters who have enough quirks, insecurities and chemistry with each other that readers will definitely have fun going through each chapter breezily. I like everyone in the comics; from Nimona herself who is unique, balls-out insane at times, and intriguing to her boss Sir Blackheart who is such a fucking softie it's unbelievable at times, and may not be the bad guy everyone else in the kingdom had saddled him the role of; and even the literal golden-boy Sir Ambrosius Goldenlion who seemed vapid and conceited in the surface but who actually does posses a moral code and was merely blinded by his ambition to be recognized as a hero that he betrayed his only friend.

This was no doubt an entertaining comics series you can buy a copy for yourself, and bring along during a vacation trip, or share among your friends and have an endless source of good times with. However, that's not to say that Nimona is perfect in every way; I do have a few noteworthy criticisms about its overall plot, narrative and conflict resolutions, but nitpicking it to death would be such a bore, wouldn't it? I know Nimona herself won't be so happy about being deconstructed and judged (which was what 90% of the people around her have done in this book), much like this book should not be taken for its flaws but rather more for its merits which is has a lot of that they may be enough to outweigh the not-so-impressive qualities. The selling point of this series is the nuanced relationships among the three:

I found that Nimona was at its finest in the later part of the series when things eventually did get gritty and high-stakes, and the core relationship between Nimona and Sir Blackheart was tested to its limits. There are certain issues and themes of trust and forgiveness that Stevenson tackled in these parts, and it was definitely resonant and meaningful. Once you've learned to enjoy and be invested in the dynamics between not only Nimona and Blackheart, but also Blackheart and his former friend-turned-enemy Sir Goldenlion, then it's easy to get swept away by the drama and action provided. I was also quite happy to learn that Stevenson confirmed herself that Blackheart and Goldenlion were childhood friends who had a romantic history. And here I thought I was just wearing ship goggles again!

That being said, I will admit that the criticisms some people may have who did not connect with this series do hold weight. I agree on their nitpicks, whether they're about the overall content of the story; the rushed arc and conflict; the lack of more world-building; or the ambiguous explanation of the origins of Nimona's power; and even the style of art for the illustrations. However, I would like to stress that these criticisms should be ignored unless you have read the book for yourself first. I certainly don't want to spoil whatever enjoyment you may find in reading Nimona if you so happen stumble upon this review and find yourself discouraged to pick it up just because of those flaws. Of course not! Nimona is an enthralling webcomics series that have really relatable and endearing characters, and it's worth picking up and experiencing the magic yourself.

I especially like the relationship between Blackheart and Nimona. The development of their alliance and partnership had been bittersweet and memorable. I even mentioned that I've likened them to a villain version of Batman and Robin, and judging by that fan art I found online, I wasn't the only one who thought of the parallels. Their chemistry alone in this story is what made this series a worthwhile recommendation. Stevenson explained in the same interview I found online that she liked writing platonic connection and not merely fanservice romance. She believed companionship is a rare thing that must be treasured. This truly attest in the wonderful, hopeful message at the ending about the many ways friendship can change someone for the better, and give them a chance to be understood or even be saved.

In a nutshell, you can't go wrong with Nimona. Go and see for yourself!


Monday, June 13, 2016

Copernicus No Kokyuu by Asumiko Nakamura

"Eventually I'll break off from the swing,
and become a constellation."

A truly magnificent and perplexing yaoi manga, The Breath of Copernicus (Coponicus No Kokyuu) written and illustrated by Asumiko Nakamura is both dark and enchanting, something of a fairy-tale in its trance-like pacing and gothic appeal. This isn't your average yaoi story at all. Nothing about it is for the sake of fanservice, which was a most thrilling shock for me. Of the finalized list of BL-GL mangas I plan to read this 2016, Coponicus is something I only stumbled upon by chance during downloads of certified recommended yaoi online. 

I didn't know what to expect when I first skimmed through the pages, but the visuals did stand out immediately upon browsing. I think Nakamura's artistic style is what really made reading this manga particularly hypnotic. There are many amazing character composition and landscape in her visuals that are just damn impressive. With a sparse total of only two volumes, The Breath of Copernicus is a worthwhile read filled with symbolic significance that someone with a morbid fascination for dark fairy-tales can't possibly resist. 

In fact, the boy-love element of this manga isn't nearly as pivotal, and more or less focuses on themes of personal liberation, quest for identity and community, and recovery from sexual and emotional trauma. Each of these elements have a hefty serving in the story itself, and worth paying attention to. Story-wise, it's an imperfect one. As intriguing as the sum of all its parts ultimately produce, certain aspects of the narrative are weak and baffling. That being said, it's been an incredible reading experience for me, and it could be for you too.

Without giving away too much, the basic premise is this: A traveling circus owned by a deranged ringmaster sells his employees for purposes of sexual exploitation. The protagonist is named Bird's Nest, an eighteen-year-old pretty boy who used to be an acrobat but has now retired to your average clown. He was terribly introverted and fragile, mostly consumed by memories of his brother's death during a performance in the tightrope, and haunted by delusions of said late brother who would often even serve as his alter-ego. 

Later on, Bird's Nest became the center of attention for a rich elderly man who bought him off from the circus to become his in-house lover. There he encounters the rich man's sadistic wife hired to be his tutor, and then falls in love with the wife's younger brother who looked so much like Bird's Nest own sibling whom he lost long ago. The story unfolds as a fascinating, topsy-turvy experience that follows Bird's Nest and his struggle for identity, absolution and independence. Whatever flaws Nakamura may have in her plot, it was more than made up by her atrociously splendid artwork. Here are some pages I loved:

This was a gothic fairy-tale at its core, both haunting and haunted depending on the point of view and perspective the reader would take. I thoroughly enjoyed the metaphors used to impart the author's message. It's very easy to immerse yourself in its characters and setting because Nakamura knows how to capture atmosphere and mood with the art. The story may dwindle every now and then because of some panels that are often hard to figure out, but Nakamura will maintain reader's interest because the themes about sexual exploitation and destruction of self are powerful and striking enough to warrant your undivided attention. The Breath of Copernicus is almost like the yaoi manga version of the recent movie Black Swan, particularly on how Nakamura depicted one's obsession with one's unrequited passion like Bird's Nest and his desire to become an acrobat again and transcend that. He has to destroy and recreate himself in the process, as well as lose the ones who tie him down.

I could call this manga as a story about the victory of individualism over external controls, but it's also a cautionary tale about what pushing yourself to the limits could do to you both in the best and worst of circumstances. As a yaoi manga, there are sex scenes included in the pages but they were mostly vaguely or symbolically illustrated as oppose to something concretely rendered. In fact, I think all of the characters here are pansexual since they mostly engage with each other frequently regardless if they are male or female or something in between. Nothing about the sexual encounters is drawn for fanservice, and are mostly likely there to serve as a plot devices that reveal something hidden or nasty about the characters themselves. Most of these sexual scenes also lean on deviancy and depravity, placing characters in stressful situations that either break their spirit, or allow them to contemplate about higher ideals in a moment of utter despair.

This could be something one can enjoy and consume for leisurely reading, but be warned that it's rather disturbing and off-putting in a lot of places too. There is happy ending of sorts near the end of the story, and maybe it's even enough to undo the permeating darkness and pain that The Breath of Copernicus has cast upon in the earlier issues. Reading Bird's Nest and his calvary is very much like walking on a tightrope yourself where gravity is inevitable and crash-landing is probably the only way out of it. I can very much recommend this not just to yaoi enthusiasts looking for something daring, but also to anyone who likes fucked-up stories that focus on sexual savagery with a bittersweet twist.