The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Tim Maly § Sooo / 2014-08-27 01:35:19
Matt § Sooo / 2014-08-25 02:10:30
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-25 00:49:38
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:47:35
Doug § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:40:50
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:23:13
Gavin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:10:44
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:06:14
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39

The booster pack
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Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Annihilation is the story of a four-person expedition into a strange region known as Area X where the laws of physics and biology seem to be bent, maybe broken. Fine. You feel like you kinda know where this is going, right? Botched experiment… wormhole… alien alloy… something like that.

You don’t know where it’s going.

areaX

Most fiction is recombinatory. That’s not a bad thing! I mean, my novel is recombinatory. You can have a lot of fun with recombination. You deal yourself a hand from the deck of culture and try to make sense of the juxtapositions. I think I just described the process behind all comic books ever. The results can be rich and compelling—all the more so because they’re supported by ideas and images with deep roots.

But! We can’t only recombine. It can’t just be remakes and reboots and remixes forever. Every so often, we need new stuff, too.

Have you ever played one of those collectible card games? Bought a pack of cards, ripped it open, added them to your deck? Annihilation is a foil-wrapped booster pack for weird fiction, loaded with truly original images. Truly original entities.

It’s the first in a trilogy called The Southern Reach. I recently finished Authority, the second, and this is shaping up to be a singular sequence indeed. There’s a clear through-line—a big story unfolding—but Authority isn’t a book that just picks up where the last one left off. Instead, it’s packed full of new pleasures, not only new characters and settings but whole new kinds of writing. If Annihilation is an expedition novel painted with a thick coat of weird, then Authority is a spy novel given the same dark lacquer. And yet, they connect; are unquestionably part of a coherent whole. Which makes me desperate to know what the third book is going to be like–whether it will be some mixture of the two, Jurassic Park meets James Bond, or some third thing entirely.

That feeling—my anticipation—brings me to another thing.

Fiction is really feeling the heat from TV. The very best shows are doing exactly what (many of) the very best novels set out to do, and doing it for much larger audiences. There is a sense of encroachment, and also a sense of defection! Novelists are lining up to write for TV.

I think one of the things that makes TV so much fun at this moment is the release schedule, which is enjoying a kind of Cambrian explosion. A season of TV used to be a pretty standard thing, right? But consider the “seasons” of shows like

  • Game of Thrones: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, airing on Sundays for a couple of months, anticipation rising in smaller waves every week.
  • Sherlock: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, just three episodes, a sort of disjointed super-movie.
  • House of Cards: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, all at once.

Whereas a book mainly just… arrives. Thud. If it’s part of a series, there’s another one in a year or two or six. Thud.

But here’s a sign that this Cambrian explosion may yet reach into print.

As I mentioned up above, Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy. The second, Authority, will be released… in a few months’ time. These are all full-length novels. The third, Acceptance, arrives this fall.

February-May-September.

That’s crazy! When has a trilogy ever been released rapid-fire in the space of a single calendar year? It’s a schedule that feels, to me, more like TV than publishing. I hope it succeeds, because I’d love to see more innovation along these lines. These days, the rhythm of a story’s release is part of the package.

Anyway, I’m hugely excited about The Southern Reach, and I’m hungry for more like it: more publishing projects that innovate not just on the level of scenes and sentences, but also genre and packaging and timing, all of it, everything. We can’t only recombine. We need to shuffle new ideas into the deck, too. Annihilation, the booster pack, is out this week.

6 comments

Actually, Ted Dekker did the same thing 10 years ago with his “The Circle Trilogy”. Now he’s releasing novels episodically. It’s good to see there are others picking up this pattern.

Sam M-B says…

Loved Annihilation and am looking forward to next books as well — and as an audiobooks guy, I’m very happy to report that the audiobook for book one is fantastic.

Multiple books in a short time is definitely getting a bit more common, but I never thought to read it as feeling the competition from TV, which does feel pretty spot on. Last year, Francis Knight had a 3-book series come out from Orbit, and Jason M. Hough had his trilogy come out July-August-September from Del Rey. And self-publishers have been cranking them out for a while. The year before, N.K. Jemisin’s duology came out back to back. On the one hand, I’m not sure I want a series book every month, but on the other hand, if Authority came out tomorrow… it would be my next read.

What I love about this is the implication that how a thing is packaged/released changes how it occupies your consciousness for a given period of time.

I dunno if it’s just me (I don’t think it is) but when I either binge-watch a show or immerse myself in a book or video game over a period of weeks, it lingers with me, even when I’m not actually with it. It creeps into dreams, or slips into my mind at random times, or becomes the way I make sense of other things – like “you know what this discussion about identification makes me think of? Assassin’s Creed! No, wait, hear me out…” It’s like it becomes “the thing” for that period of time.

There’s something really neat about, say, The Southern Reach being released over a period of (roughly) a year, because you might look back at the year and say, “yeah, my partner and I went here, and that new job thing was great, and oh yeah, The Southern Reach.” – like you shaped your year in part through the art that became one of the ways you saw things for that time.

I dunno – in light of the feeling that things constantly being swallowed by the mass, there’s something really nice about that idea.

Nav, I think this is it exactly; I wish I’d said it this way. The timed released allows a story to seep into your life; for a while, it’s a companion for the journey, rather than just an encounter along the way.

It’s funny… my first exposure to rapid-fire serialized storytelling actually came in the form of children’s / YA fiction. I was fairly obsessed with the Animorphs series as a kid, where the author (working with her husband, an uncredited co-writer) cranked out 14 books a year! One major plot arc took place over the course of a summer – a trilogy over three months.

Ironically, Scholastic tried to reissue the series in 2011, but lengthened the release schedule to a book every 4-6 months, saying that monthly releases no longer made economic sense. They stopped after 8 books due to slow sales.

As for present-day experiments in narrative timing: did anyone keep up with The Silent History as it was being serialized?

Thanks for recommending Annihilation. I didn’t realize Jeff was the guy behind Wonderbook and the steam punk thing until the end of Annihilation when I read his bio. All paths seem to lead to Jeff Vandermeer. Love the serial format. I’m hooked!

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