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The Complicated Feels of Annihilation

Content warning: this essay discusses The 2018 film Annihilation, and particularly the character of Dr Josie Radek and her history of self-harm and suicide. Also here be spoilers.

I read Annihilation when it came out in 2014, and I hated it. I left a long, angry 1-star Goodreads review about its poor writing, its terrible worldbuilding, its refusal to answer the questions it asked. That review, for years, was the top-rated Goodreads review for the book. A few years ago, I quietly deleted it. Knowing I wrote it in the first place makes me uncomfortable; I live in terror that I’m going to meet Jeff VanderMeer and he’s going to go “hey, aren’t you that 1-star asshole?” 

Because he’s not wrong. I gave it a 1-star review, and I was an asshole. And as I’ve gotten older and I’ve read and written more, I’ve come to understand Annihilation very differently, and understand criticism and genre very differently too. 

Fig 1: a book I think I really did not give enough credit

There is a scene in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) where Tessa Thompson walks through an arch in a garden, and I cannot watch it without breaking down. The film and the book are different beasts: Garland has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to make a strict adaptation, rather relying on a memory of the book and trying to adapt the VIBE. That vibe is a messy, complex journey through identity and the way pain shapes it. In both the book and the movie, a small team of scientists enter a region of the Florida Everglades called the shimmer, which is being overtaken by an alien ecosystem. In the film, they are confronted by literalisations of that pain – intestines that writhe like snakes, a skinless bear with a woman’s face that screams in a woman’s voice – and one by one they hurl themselves against it and it destroys them. 

When Doctor Radek confronts her pain, it doesn’t manifest as a monster, but instead as a garden. It is beautiful, it enthralls her, and for perhaps the first time in the movie we see her smile. She removes her jacket, revealing extensive scarring from self-harm and suicide attempts, and then she walks into a green arch and disappears.

A literal reading of the scene fails. If you wanted to TVTropes it, like I did to the book in 2014, you’d make a fool out of yourself. They never established that she could teleport, Chekhov’s Gun FAIL, Crowning Moment of Suck. That doesn’t matter: that’s not what the film is trying to do, it exists in a space of almost pure metaphor, and it’s that metaphor that turns me into a weeping wreck whenever I watch it. 

Annihilation isn’t some bullshit instagram exploration of pain, it doesn’t pat you on the shoulder and say What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger in a loopy font over a picture of a forest. In many cases, the team members’ trauma is exactly what kills them. They flare out, they repress and implode, they become so twisted by pain that they don’t even recognise themselves. The film explicitly compares pain to cancer, a thing that metastasizes and consumes, that takes healthy parts of the body and turns them into more of itself. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress has literal cancer, and she refuses to confront her coming death or her pain, and in the end her tumour erupts out of her in a great molten geyser and twists her body into a cruel mimicry of itself. Both Radek and Ventress – in very different ways – become their pain.

The garden isn’t inevitable, or even likely, but it’s there, and Josie finds it; she finds beauty and peace in her pain, and then she transcends it entirely. Josie stares down her trauma, and becomes the garden. Whenever I watch that scene, a wave rolls over, equal parts hope and grief. It’s one of the few things that can reliably make me cry. I have my own history with depression, self-harm, and suicide, and Annihilation provides me a catharsis like I’ve never experienced. It is pure metaphor, and it’s the realest shit I’ve ever seen. 

I can’t actually speak for the book. I haven’t read it since 2014, and every time I try, I fall to pieces. I know the film will destroy me, but I know how, and I’m ready to confront that. The book though? I read it poorly, as pure literal SF/F, and I barely remember it outside of the monsters, and knowing what I know now, I’m terrified that reading it will snap me in half. I’ve already dealt with Tessa Thompson going through that arch, I’m not sure I can bring myself to do it again with a different doctor. I can’t remember whether VanderMeer’s doctor even goes through an arch, whether there’s a garden, and I don’t know whether I have the strength to find out. I fucked it up for myself and I don’t know whether I can go back.

It’s not like I grew up on entirely a diet of mass-market lowest-common denominator media, I studied English literature at university and was (and still am) a huge fan of surrealist poets like John Ashbery and Arthur Rimbaud, I knew how to spot a fucking metaphor, but somehow when I read VanderMeer’s Annhilation I read it on a purely literal level. Sci-fi can’t have metaphors! It’s about action and mystery and monsters! Those things can’t mean anything! I’d put a wall around the genre that said it worked like this, and when it didn’t work like that I got angry and blamed it on the author. 

I’ve seen a review of 100 Years of Solitude that 1-stars it for not following Sanderson’s Laws of Magic, and while I wasn’t that bad, I was doing exactly the same thing. Genre is not a straitjacket, and we are worse writers and readers if we treat it like one. I did, and I gave Annihilation an angry 1-star review because it didn’t have enough tropes, then four years later I saw Annihilation and nearly had a nervous breakdown.  

Which is a lot of words to say Take A Work On Its Own Merits but I hope it illuminates it in a way that sticks. Annihilation deserves so much more than I gave it, and it’s not alone. Be better than me and read generously – when I finally did, I found a garden.

Computers Are Not Your Friends: the Iowa Caucus, the Shadow App, and the End of Faith

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said AI could be racist, it almost burned down the internet. Smug dudes in baseball caps were hooting and hollering and falling over themselves to laugh at the ridiculous idea that a computer system could hold human values. AOC was right. It’s one of the predominant issues in AI right now—an artificial intelligence is built from human datasets, and the selection of those datasets is done by a human, and that means there’s a chance to program human biases into an AI. 

In 2018, researchers at MIT created a “psychopath AI” called Norman, named after Norman Bates. They exclusively fed Norman horrifying data: car crashes, dead bodies, mutilation and destruction. Norman came out fucked up. Not everything is as dramatic as turning an AI into a serial killer, but we’re seeing similar issues everywhere: facial recognition cameras—predominantly trained on datasets of white men—continue to not recognise black women. There’s something we need to acknowledge if we’re going to have healthy democracies: technology is not impartial. It is made by people and used by people, and it is as capable of bias as those same people. 

We’re currently seeing this at the disastrous Iowa Caucus—the Shadow App that delivered miscounts was made by a secretive company that took funding from Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, and a number of its staff are former Hillary staffers. In one particular caucus, Shadow took Bernie Sanders’ 116 votes, compared them to Buttigieg’s 73 votes, and came out with the same number of delegates. There’s not enough there to say it was intentional, but there’s more than enough to spur conspiracy theories, to destabilise trust in our institutions—to make millions of people around the world shrug and say “eh, fuck it, what’s the point?” and never show up to vote. 

I don’t think the Shadow team called a Ratfucking Meeting and drew out plans to Ratfuck Bernie; I think the Shadow team worked through unconscious biases that would level out the playing field, because their guy is a frontrunner but not the frontrunner, and wanted to see their guy win. Because they’re people, and people have biases, and the machines they make often carry those biases, even when they don’t know they’re doing it. 

We tilt towards people we like. Hell, I’m doing it right now: I like Bernie, and I’ve sat down and tried to be professional and make sure everything in this article is as objective as possible, but extricating the self is hard. I think I’ve succeeded, but if the internet has got a surplus of anything, it’s folks who are ready to loudly disagree. The least I can do is say: I’m a leftist, and that probably changes the data I give you, whether I know I’m doing it or not.  

Maybe somebody on the Shadow team did fuck up, honestly, without bias. That’s where the tech world seems to be leaning on this whole circus. Shadow tried to do a very complex job using limited funding and an extremely short timeframe (two months and $60,000 is nothing in Silicon Valley terms, especially to find a solution to electronic-fucking-voting), and they may well have just dropped the ball. If you want a fun experiment, bring up electronic voting with a group of policymakers, then with a group of engineers. The general consensus from techies is that we’re just not there yet and we can’t guarantee safe or reliable systems, but politicians all over the world are rushing to implement it anyway. The issues with Shadow seem pretty clear-cut, but it’s based on a relatively small dataset, and they might’ve just not considered that. They just didn’t scale their tool correctly, and God knows it wouldn’t be the first time a startup failed to scale down effectively. We wind up with the same problem: we trust our tech too much. We trust it like it’s a fortress and not a matchstick palisade. 

In the UK, a group with strong ties to the LibDems launched a ‘tactical voting site’ that leant heavily LibDem, recommending them as the tactical vote even in strong Labour constituencies. GetVoting claimed impartiality, claimed to be just the data, but it ended up making wildly misleading claims during one of the most crucial elections in recent history. In the end, the Libdems split votes across the UK. Did GetVoting do it on purpose? I think there’s a stronger case there than with Shadow: the results are further from reality, the funding links are tighter. It doesn’t matter: in the end, nobody won.

We often talk about datasets and AIs and applications as though they spring into existence fully-formed from cracks in the earth; we live in an age of perfect miracles, and we trust them with our lives. 

That trust is killing us. 

Sometimes it’s malice, sometimes it’s incompetence, sometimes it’s something more gentle and strange and human that’s hard to put a name to. The end result is the same. Technology can be liberating and empowering, but that same power is dangerous if mishandled, and right now we’re a bunch of drivers who refuse to admit that we’ve blown a tyre; refuse to admit that it’s possible for tyres to blow; drivers who are careening down State Highway 1 with our dicks in our hands screaming that our car can drive all the way to heaven.  

How to Pick the Right Comp Titles (for Science-Fiction and Fantasy)

For many of us, comp titles are one of the hardest parts of pitching. You’re trying to find titles that:

  1. Match aesthetically with your MS
  2. Match thematically with your MS
  3. Are popular enough that the agent has heard of them 
  4. Aren’t so popular that you look like you don’t know what you’re doing 

And that’s hard. So I’m going to break this down into two parts: 

  • The Great List of Swamps, wherein I go through all the things you shouldn’t do with comp titles. 
  • The Little List of Lights, where I talk about the rationale behind making good comp choices. 

But before we begin, the most important thing to remember: 

Rule #0: any rule mentioned in this article may be broken, but breaking it must be motivated. If you’re going to break a rule, ask why, and if there isn’t a better choice that doesn’t break it. I want you to imagine yourself defending your position to me, and see whether you still feel okay with your pick at the end. 

Rule #0 Corollary: you have 2 comp titles. You may freely break the rules on one of them, but may god help you if you break them on both. 

The Great List of Swamps

This list is in descending order, from the gravest sins to the most minor. The closer to the top something is, the more you need to check in with Rule #0. Numbers 1 and 2 are the gravest sins, only to be broken in times of emergency; everything else is to be used with discretion. 

#1: Popular Nerd Franchises 

This is easily the most common sin; pitch parties and submission inboxes are lousy with these. If you pick something super popular that everybody knows, then you’re not actually giving much information about your title, because everybody else is picking it, and picking it for different reasons. “This is about teenage wizards” = Harry Potter, “this is set in a magic school” = Harry Potter, “this has an allegory for fascism” = Harry Potter, “the author initially seems progressive but is actually a massive TERF dipshit” = Harry Potter etc etc. 

What counts as a popular nerd franchise? Well if you have to ask “is x a popular nerd franchise” then the answer is probably yes, but here’s an incomplete list of the worst offenders: 

  • Harry Potter
  • Game of Thrones
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who 
  • Marvel/DC
  • Sherlock
  • Supernatural
  • Anything with “Joss Whedon” within 100 feet of it 

There are exceptions to this: if you’re hugely into the X-Men and think some specific arc or writer’s take on a character really does reflect something thematically and aesthetically about your title, then it’s worth a shot pitching that at certain agents—Connor Goldsmith, for example, is a huge X-Men fan and will probably know what you’re talking about. ORIGIN: THE TRUE STORY OF WOLVERINE = acceptable rule break here, but just X-MEN is too big and too broad, and is pretty much meaningless. 

#2: Video Games, Movies, and TV

I love video games. Love ‘em too much, probably. The number of Steam games I have with four-digit playtimes is quite frankly embarrassing. I expect somebody is going to call me a snob and say I hate these mediums because I’m some awful book dude, but it’s not that at all. 

I don’t expect anybody to read books. It’s 2020, I’ve seen the stats. Many of the smartest people I know barely read novels any more, and that’s fine. BUT, if you want to write books, you’re expected to read them. And if your comp titles aren’t books, then it looks like you don’t read enough. You’re less likely to recognise literary cliche or know how to produce good prose, and you’re just generally less likely to understand the medium you’re working in. It’s like rocking up to a ska band and saying “Hand me that trombone, my dude in checkered Chucks; I can paint the fuck outta fruit.” The issue isn’t that you’re a bad artist or an invalid artist, it’s that you’re in the wrong fucking room.

Especially if there’s a novel that’s a better comp, seeing this makes me think you just don’t know books. 

#3: Any books that got a major TV or movie adaptation  

Same as above, except it can kinda come off like you’re trying to stealth it, like you’re the kid who watched the movie before giving his book report. 

#4: Comics

This gets its own section, because it tends to be less problematic than the other mediums—there’s more crossover in skills required, and a lot of literary folks are huge comic nerds (see: Connor Goldsmith—one of the best agents in the business—talking about X-Men for 90 minutes and barely slowing down). Still, comics work differently: the addition of images totally changes the way stories are told, and folks coming at you from solely comics are often super strong in some areas but struggle in other core competencies.

It’s that same thing as games/movies/tv: if a novel comp exists, using a non-novel comp makes me wonder whether you’re reading enough. Comics are definitely a lesser sin, but they can trigger a little alarm. If I see a solid comics comp, my gut says “great dialogue and plotting, workmanlike prose”. There are worse things for a publisher’s gut to say, but it’s important to be aware of. Use comic comps in moderation, but make sure there’s at least one prose fiction comp.

#5: Nonfiction

Controversial one here, and further down the list for good reason. Honestly, I really like seeing a nonfiction comp: it tells me you read widely and you’ve done research. Nothing is a worse morass of cliches than SFF by somebody who only reads SFF, and nonfiction prose is often just as lively as fiction. Still, two nonfiction (and no fiction) is troubling, and raises the same question: do you read this genre? Do you know what people are doing? Or are you just some snobby boomer dude rolling in trying to fix a genre he barely understands? This gets its own special rule: absolutely use nonfiction, but make sure the other comp is SF/F.

#6: Shit the Agent hasn’t heard of 

And here’s your devil’s choice: too popular (like Harry Potter) and you’re dead meat. Not popular enough, and the agent will shrug and pass on. I’ll say this though: agents tend to read a lot of books and know the industry, and it’s much harder to go too small than go too big. If it got a deal with a US or UK publishing house, they’ve probably heard of it; by the standards of obscurity, Perdido Street Station or Ambergris or whatever you’ve earmarked as something weird they don’t know is fuckin Justin Bieber.

Also, they’re more likely to have read in their genre: every SF/F agent has read Gideon the Ninth at this point, but I can’t guarantee they’ll have read Killers of the Flower Moon. They don’t need to have read it (just be aware of it), but you take a bigger risk if you step outside their genre. 

#7: Anything Old

Right now the bottom, and can work in your favour if you pick the right titles, but still worth talking about. If you pitch me with THE NIGHT LANDS X THE MUSIC OF ERICH ZANN I’m going to think a lot better of you than the millionth HARRY POTTER X FIREFLY guy, but I might wonder whether you’re aware of the modern market and how it has changed. SF/F doesn’t look or read anything like it did as little as 20 years ago, and while throwbacks have their place, we got rid of some stuff for a reason—the trends that lasted tend to be the ones that sold as well today as they did in the 70s, and the ones that didn’t have been rightfully left in the dustbin. 

There’s a reason this is down the bottom of the swampy list: it can be a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Like comics and nonfiction, I love seeing that you’ve read older texts, I just want evidence that you don’t only read older texts

The Little List of Lights

#1: You are looking for aesthetic matches. The Dawnhounds has a kinda fungal dieselpunk/1910s/Southeast Asian vibe that I didn’t think existed in a lot of places, but beta readers compared it a lot to Ambergris, Leviathan, and Borne—’biopunk’ wasn’t quite right since that tends to lean more towards sci-fi like The Windup Girl, but the mushroom-y-ness seems to be what a lot of readers picked up on and I came to realise it was a major draw, and what a lot of people took away. 

#2: You are looking for thematic matches. The Dawnhounds is about queer found family coming together to fight back against colonialism, and about hope in the face of absolute darkness, also the universally-acknowledged fact that all cops are bastards. That was harder, especially at the time*. Hope is pretty universal, but I admit I hit a wall looking for the others. I went away and caught up on my reading list, and, well, see what I ended up going with. 

(*I sort of regret that I stopped pitching in August, because in September Gideon the Ninth came out and blew down the walls and we’re all still trying to figure out what the fuck to do about it. It’s dark but it’s also funny, it’s about queer people but it refuses to let them die pretty, it’s about staring down the void and managing to eke out a draw. It is also—and this was a problem during pitching, because Americans told me it would never sell—unapologetically Kiwi at times in its prose. Now that Gideon has made it to the New York Times while including the line “absolutely chocka with ghosts” intact, maybe there’s room for a bit more Kiwi-ness in SF/F. But that’s neither here nor there—it’s just something I’m gonna have to die mad about. Gideon was a perfect thematic comp title for The Dawnhounds and it came out like two weeks too late.)

#3: you want to show that you actually read SF/F. A lot of my early pitches using eXistenZ and other Cronenberg titles as comps, and I think they did more harm than good. They weren’t accurate enough to justify stepping outside of prose fiction. I wanted to get across the malleability of bodies and the genemod stuff, but something like Lilith’s Brood would’ve both been more accurate and also better-illustrated where I was coming from. 

For The Dawnhounds, I ended up going with: THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT X BORNE

Putting It All Together

“So what do good comp picks look like, smartass?” 

I’m glad you asked. The following books don’t exist, I’m just sorta riffing, but here’s the sort of comps that might stand out at a pitch party. 

Murder, romance and intrigue at a school for teenage necromancers. GIDEON THE NINTH X WITCHMARK

A witch journeys over a beautiful and broken land, to save a son who doesn’t deserve it. FIFTH SEASON X SHADOW OF THE TORTURER  

A traumatised WW1 veteran must hunt down his ex-boyfriend, now a vampire, through the streets of 1920s Paris. AMBERLOUGH X THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY

And here are the sort of comps that will be totally ignored:

In the far future, a man must save the universe from aliens. FIREFLY X ALIENS

A Brave Knight Must Fight Against Zombies. AMC’S THE WALKING DEAD X THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES 

Good Wizards on dragons fight against Bad Wizards on dragons for the fate of the world. HARRY POTTER X GAME OF THRONES

And that’s us for now, but before I go: The Dawnhounds is currently eligible for the 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards. They’re being held at WorldCon and getting on the shortlist would be the biggest publicity boost I could possibly get. It’s free, it’ll take you 2 minutes, and it would be absolutely huge for me. If you read my book and loved it, please consider dropping me a nomination for Best Novel here.

If you somehow got here without reading my debut novel, you can get yourself a copy here.

MY DEBUT NOVEL IS OUT: The Dawnhounds

I can’t believe I forgot to put this on the blog. I got a bit swept up in all the madness of it, but my debut novel The Dawnhounds came out in November 2019 and it’s … actually selling. I’m still a little bit speechless. I expected it to just drop off the world, but—much like its protagonist—it refuses to die pretty.

I’ve written about it (and Gideon the Ninth, and others) for The Spinoff, and there’s an upcoming review in Landfall for y’all to look forward to. If you’re in NZ, you can order it much cheaper and faster from Unity or Arty Bees, but Amazon is available for international readers.

Readers have described as “Ankh Morpork meets Ambergris”, “Disco Elysium meets Ambergris”, and I must assume “Ambergris meets Ambergris” because there’s only one definitive weird beautiful myco-fantasy right now, but fingers crossed I’m about to change that.

A dying world, an eldritch alien consciousness, a conspiracy in the highest houses, and one mediocre cop right in the damned middle.

It’s going to be a long night.