Mount Readmore Book Review 2018, 128/200
Finished on 8/21/2018
Genres: Science Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Fantasy, Fantasy Classic, Cosmic Horror, Body Horror
A Twisted, Twisting Story Beyond Human Reckoning
Highly Recommended if you are a general Fantasy or Sci Fi fan. The horror elements aren’t so bad if you’re worried about them.
I’ve got to be honest with you guys, I’m not a fan of Horror. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while now based on things I’ve read. Well, no longer! I read this short book and I was surprisingly pleased. I loved this book. Let’s get this review started.
Characterization: I loved this book’s characters. To be sure, none of them were very realistic or likable. However I empathized with the POV (known only as ‘the Biologist’) quite a bit because I understood where she was coming from (she’s highly introverted, she has difficulty understanding people, she is a biologist). Other reviews found her to be not very sympathetic, which I think is a just criticism. However that lack of sympathy is thematic with the lack of human sympathy found within Area X, which reinforces the story’s theme of a brutal and a non-understandable universe.
The other characters, who are members of the nefarious ‘Southern Reach’ organization, are similarly unsympathetic. They are dehumanized by the fact that they were never given any names. They are referred to as ‘The Psychologist,’ ‘the Surveyor,’ and ‘the Anthropologist.’ These characters were just as unsympathetic as the protagonist, but when they start disappearing you miss them for they are basically the only touchstone the reader has on reality. That is characterization (and horror) done well.
Plot: This book is about a group of four scientists travelling into a verdant alien ecosystem which has taken root in Florida. As the story develops, and the characters gradually discover the history of Area X, they gradually go insane as weird alien fungus takes over their brains- taking over the protagonist first. It’s not a straightforward ‘I’m evil’ madness (which is a boring genre trope), but a madness where people’s priorities gradually change and align with the goals of Area X. This gives the book a sorta slipstream feel.
Pacing: The pacing is quick, but a bit stuttering. The book contains a ton of flashbacks to the Biologist’s childhood and her marriage. This breaks up the plot in a way I didn’t really like… however I feel this disjointed narrative really served to emphasize the theme of a non-understandable universe by constantly forcing you to rethink and reappraise what you know about reality(are you sensing a theme?). I didn’t like it, but I recognize that it was in service to the themes so it works.
Style/Prose: The prose was the weakest part of the story because it was merely okay. The author used scientific words (fruiting body, mycelium, that sort of thing) which grounded the story and made it feel real. The style/mood of the story was top notch. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything with quite such a defined creepy style. The author managed to stick with his weird creepy style throughout, which is a feat a lot of authors cannot manage. Also, as mentioned before, the staggered flashback/present/flashback/present pattern made the book seem disjointed, which added to the unnerving style.
While this book is Horror Genre, it wasn’t really scary as much as it was mindbending and at times revolting (think Body Horror (and Brain Horror) as opposed to Slasher). The book also had undeveloped Thriller/Conspiracy elements which the author started to flesh out but never resolved. I wanted them to be at least partially resolved so I was disappointed here.
I’m adding this to my ‘Fantasy Classics’ list even after just one reading. I think this might be a contentious pick because for a lot of people the protagonist/characterization isn’t so hot, however I sympathize with the protag due to our shared background in biology.
Who’s up for a vacation in Florida?
And now for the movie review
I watched it a month after reading it, and I was left with the impression that the director decided to create a re-interpretation of the weirdness of the books to make it slightly more palatable. That said, I think they did a good job. The characters wouldn’t have worked if they were as unlikable as they were in the book.
To start off with, the VFX and setting were astounding. I, being a biologists plant guy, really liked how the alien ecosystem was so gorgeous. The creators of the movie did a good job of creating a creepy crawly setting which was drop dead beautiful. The creature design was really well done as well, creating alien-earth like animals.
The acting was really good, and not just Portman. I particularly liked Dr. Ventriss (aka the Psychologist). The ending had me wondering if she was compromised by the aliens for the entire movie.
Now for my biggest problem: the pacing. They don’t enter the Shimmer until 1/5th of the way into the movie, which is way too long. The directer made a character focused movie instead of a traditional action scifi, but that made the first portion of the movie too slow.
Finally, I want to point out the fact that the movie’s creators for actually trying to get their science right. They referenced things like ‘Hox Genes’ and cell division, and while they occasionally referenced them wrong I give them bonus points for trying and not just making stuff up. They already have a McGuffin ‘anything goes’ scifi plotline, so the fact that they tried to shore up the sci-fi reasons for how their setting worked actually matters to me.