Over Christmas a friend of mine finished reading a series of books that he had started back in the summer of last year. It is known as the “Southern Reach trilogy”.
I knew he was reading the series of books because he had mentioned them to me several times and had kept me abreast of his own interaction with the books.
And he revealed to me, as we had one of those get togethers that seems to occur part way between the Yuletide guests going home and the final knees-up on New Years Eve, that the delay in completion of his reading was nothing to do with the size of the volumes, nor his speed of taking in English prose, but rather the feelings of discomfort he had on concluding the first volume.
Indeed such was his uncertainty about what he had just read that having completed his perusal of volume 1 he set it aside quite unsure if he actually wanted to continue.
Now I must admit that by this time I had something of a vested interest in the piece, for he had kept me abreast of developments as he read the book, and I must say that I for one was disappointed that he didn’t want to go on. I wanted to hear how it turned out.
The problem was that although he also wanted to know what happened next, he found the whole thing very unsettling. However with a little prodding from me he did indeed decide to buy part two but with the resolution firmly in place that if it troubled him as much as the first volume, he would stop and give both volumes either to the local charity shop, or to me. If the latter was his decision I was to give him a quick resume when I had read the books through.
But, as luck would have it, my pal found volume two utterly gripping, devouring it in two days and moving straight onto the third and final volume (you will recall that I mentioned above that it was a trilogy), reading it at the first opportunity.
However this time it turned out that the volume combined both the attributes of volumes one and two. It was, he told me, unputdownable and thoroughly disturbing.
There was not too much my friend would say while he was reading volume three, but when he had finished I saw that something was seriously wrong. Indeed when I put the point to him, he admitted that he was getting strange looks, and his customers and friends at work were giving him quizzical glances.
Of course I offered sympathy, understanding and, upon neither of those helping the situation, an admonishment along the lines of the need to “pull yourself together quickly”. “You can’t be ridden asunder by a novel,” I told him.
There then followed a prolonged debate on the exact meaning of being ridden asunder and whether it could be used in relation to a paperback trilogy, but eventually we settled down into some pondering as to what it was within the three books that had both entrapped and disturbed him so much.
The “Southern Reach” story I should explain, centres on a part of the USA within which suddenly becomes unreachable from the rest of the country, save through a single tunnel. Most of those people who do go through and subsequently come back, come back seriously ill, either mentally, physically or both.
Ultimately it appears that the cause of the problem is that some sort of alien life form has landed in the area, but – and this is what makes the whole thing so disturbing – it is not a life form that looks or behaves in any sort of way we can recognise or understand.
I can’t tell you what happens in case you want to read the book, but the point is that this is an alien or set of aliens as far from the creatures of Star Trek or Star Wars that you could imagine – and then some. We cannot understand what they are, what they want, or why they want it. As such we have no way of knowing anything about them or their motives or desires. They don’t share our behaviour, our morality, our anything. There is no connection.
Finding out about the book and seeing how the series affected my friend was fascinating – as were the comments made by readers on the on-line store from which he bought the books. The story was found to be either “rubbish” or “extraordinary but disturbing”.
I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks; how some people can be deeply moved by a set of books while others just dismiss them in a few lines as nonsense. How something could be so different from anything we know that there is no point of understanding possible.
I mean we can understand an ant eater and a tree because they are life forms that operate according to our vision of what life does. But what about when we move beyond that?
And then I wondered: supposing an alien came and saw the Admiral storage service. Would they be able to understand what is going on?
In the end I thought quite possibly not, which is perhaps a bit sad.
But at least it means there’s no point in advertising in the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way, so that saves a bit of money I guess.