The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeTitle: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Published: 22 May 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, thriller, fantasy or science fiction
Rating: 8/10

On 12 January 2012, a day that will come to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash within several hours of each other. One plane goes down in Aokigahara, an infamous Japanese forest where people go to to commit suicide. One plane goes down in the Florida everglades, one off the coast of Portugal. The fourth crash is the most destructive, landing in Khayalitsha, the most populous township in Cape Town, South Africa. There are only three survivors, one child on three of the four planes – Bobby in the US, Jess in the UK, and Hiro in Japan. Their survival should have been impossible, so the crashes not only cause a wave of shock and grief, but a flood of conspiracy theories and religious fanaticism.

And no matter how absurd some of these beliefs are, you start to feel that they might contain some truth. When Bobby, Jess and Hiro wake up, they’re not quite the same children they used to be, and strange things happen around them. After Bobby moves in with his grandparents, his grandfather Reuben starts recovering from his Alzheimers. Jess’s uncle – Paul Craddock – becomes her legal guardian, but his resolve to take care of her starts to crumble under the influence of her weirdly calm, sunny demeanour (as if she didn’t just lose her parents and twin sister) and the terrifying figure that appears at the end of his bed in the middle of the night. Hiro does not speak except through the unnervingly realistic surrabot designed by his father, a robotics genius.

Journalist Elspeth Martins endeavours to tell the story, and the novel consists almost entirely of the book she publishes – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The book is composed of a variety of materials cutting across a range of cultures and experiences – excerpts from Paul Craddock’s unfinished biography; online chats between Hiro’s cousin Chiyoko and a geek named Ryu who never leaves his room; news articles; and interviews conducted by Elspeth herself. Besides the main characters, we hear from people involved in the rescue efforts, other journalists, investigators, a domestic worker who lives in Khayelitsha, etc. Only at the beginning and the very end do we get more traditional bits of narrative that fall outside Elspeth’s book.

Black Thursday – and The Three as a whole – describes three key things. Firstly, the four terrible plane crashes on Black Thursday, and the grief that follows. Secondly, the three child survivors, seen mostly from the perspectives of their families. Finally, and most importantly, it describes the beginning of the global reaction, which rears up like a monster as terrifying as the children and destructive as the plane crashes. What we have is not just a macabre international incident, but what could be the beginnings of global collapse.

The novel starts out by thrusting you right into the terror of the Japanese plane crash. Pamela May Donald, a Christian from small-town America, is so nervous about travelling in an alien culture that she was too scared to use the toilet at the airport in case she couldn’t figure out how to flush it. Her anxiety sets the tone and intensifies as the plane goes down. She wakes up soon after it crashes, her body broken and dying, flames all around, corpses hanging from the trees of the suicide forest. In her final moments, she sees ghosts and a strange boy, and records a cryptic warning message on her phone:

They’re here. I’m . . . don’t let Snookie eat chocolate, it’s poison for dogs, she’ll beg you, the boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many . . . They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…

Pamela’s message becomes the catalyst for a wave of religious fanaticism. Pastor Len is the leader of her church (a small, conservative congregation), and after hearing the message he decides that Pamela is a prophet, the children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they need to find the fourth child because these are the End Times and the prophecies of the book of Revelations are coming true. Of course, he has been chosen to spread the word, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about taking care of Pamela’s dog although she also stressed this in her message. Pastor Len’s fervour is both disturbing and funny, especially when he says things like this:

It’s clear as a bell. How much clearer could the message be? The Lord is good, listeners, He isn’t going to mess around with obfuscation. (talking about how the crashes and the colours of the planes’ logos are obvious proof that the Four Horsemen are here)

His certainty is very similar to that of the guy who argues (with an overabundance of capital letters) that the Three are controlled by aliens:

The children have been IMPLANTED and they are watching us to see what we will do. THIS CAN BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION!!!!

I scoff at these guys, and yet there were times when I wondered if they were at least partly right. The problem is that you can’t be sure. This is not the kind of horror novel where the terror eventually steps out into the open and everything is explained. To be honest, I wanted more overt horror, but at the same time I’m one of those people who is usually disappointed when the monsters are revealed, and I have to credit the subtle, cerebral horror that Lotz has crafted.

It’s unclear if the children are truly malevolent or evil, but they are childish in ways that have their own terrible implications. And part of what’s scary about The Three is our alienation from the truth. As readers, our experience is similar to that of the characters and the fictional public in the novel – there’s so little we know, and so little that we can know. Elspeth’s book is our best source of information, and it’s full of people who don’t know what the fuck is going on even when they think they do. Horror stories usually have that one person who understands what’s happening, but no one on Earth understands the Three, except the children themselves (who might not be children anymore) and they’re not telling. We are held at a distance, with no hope of knowing the whole truth.

Unfortunately another problem is that some people claim to know the truth and can wield their crackpot theories in the absence of better explanations. Pastor Len and similar right-wing religious fanatics are the main problem here, and the Three represent a massive opportunity for them to grab at money and power. The Christian fanatics can be quite scary, but The Three also questions the tendency for all of us to indulge in conspiracies:

why are people so fast to think the worst or waste their time believing in frankly bizarre and convoluted theories? Sure, the odds of this happening are infinitesimal, but come on! Are we that bored? Are we all, at heart, just Internet trolls?

You also need to think about the way Elspeth’s book itself fits into this story. She makes it sound so noble and authoritative, claiming that it’s “an objective account”, and her motivation was to “to provide an unbiased platform for the perspectives of those closest to the main players”. At the same time, she warns readers “to remember that these accounts are subjective and to draw their own conclusions”.

“Objective”? “Unbiased platform”? These terms are deeply suspicious, even if Elspeth’s intentions are good. She’s limited in terms of what she can include in her book. Notably, none of the children get a an “unbiased platform” and are always seen through the eyes of others. And we don’t hear from people like Reuben (who experiences at least a temporary cure for his Alzheimer’s), the children who go to school with Jess, or the doctors who treat the Three. At the same time, many of the people Elspeth talks have already interpreted events based on the way things turned out, or are speaking with the understanding that their words will be made public. Elspeth also chooses what goes into the book, and edits the interviews she conducts, so how “objective” is all of this?

Then there’s the warning about subjectivity and the request that people draw their own conclusions. Sounds reasonable until you remember that people like Pastor Len drew their own conclusions from subjective accounts like Pamela’s last words. So while Black Thursday tells us most of the story of the Three, it becomes a part of that story too, with the potential to be just as dangerous as it is enlightening. As Lotz’s readers, we get to read just a little bit more at the beginning and the end, enough to get a glimpse of the terrifying big picture.

I also wanted to comment on the narrative structure. Because it’s made up of so many POVs and forms, the story moves slowly and thoughtfully. Lotz does a great job of making the interviews and other accounts seem realistic, which has loads of advantages but a couple of disadvantages too. When people tell stories they contextualise them by talking about themselves and their circumstances, and often draw out the details. This is partly why it moves so slowly, but it also gives the novel depth and texture. I really liked the bits of Japanese and South African culture and language that Lotz weaves into those parts of the stories. I learned the Japanese term hikikomori – “Someone who is socially isolated to the extent that they rarely (or never) leave their room” – and the emoticon ORZ (a figure kneeling with its head on the ground, indicating frustration or despair. The O is the head, R the torso, Z the legs).

There are loads of characters, but Lotz handles them very well by giving them distinct voices or at least intriguing stories. For example I enjoyed reading the interviews with Reba, a woman from Pastor Len’s church who claims to have been Pamela’s best friend but very obviously isn’t. There’s a short piece from a black South African domestic worker that does a fantastic job of relating class issues in the country, while other South African characters add a dose of humour with local styles of speech. Jess’s uncle, Paul Craddock (a gay English actor) is a bit bland, but his story is the creepiest as Jess unnerves him in ways that the other children’s guardians do not experience.

Several of the reviews I’ve read argued that the many POVs makes it hard to connect with the characters. Personally this wasn’t really a problem for me, not because I connected strongly with the characters but because I think having them at a distance is kind of the point and suits the story.

On the other hand the story is also necessarily incomplete and this did bug me a bit because I wanted to know so much more. In writing this review though, I started to better appreciate the balance Lotz struck between information and intrigue about the Three. Those kids are just one subject in the novel. The is also about us, the weird and warped ways in which we might react to an event like Black Thursday, and how the world could be changed by it.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonTitle: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 10 April 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

An alien ship crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. The polluted waters become pure and salty-sweet, and teem with fantastical marine and alien life. Just before the event, three people were wandering towards each other on Bar Beach – Adaora (a marine biologist), Agu (a soldier), and Anthony (a famous rapper). Then the sea itself rears up to swallow them for a meeting with the aliens that changes their lives forever.

When they awake on shore a shape-shifting alien is with them, in the form of a woman who Adaora names Ayodele. They take her back to Adaora’s home laboratory to conduct a few simple tests and decide what to do, but the situation quickly spirals out of their control.

Adaora, Agu and Anthony want to protect Ayodele, so they her help send out peaceful messages to Lagos and the world. Adaora’s maid Philo tells her boyfriend Moziz about the alien, and he and his friends decide to kidnap Ayodele and make her print money for them, assuming that if the technologically advanced aliens can shape-shift, they can create money out of thin air. Moziz’ friend Jacobs is in on the money-making plan but also has hopes for living openly as a transvestite, given that an LGBT student organisation is trying to use the shape-shifting aliens in a campaign for inclusivity. When Adaora’s newly religious husband Chris finds out, he tells his priest, Father Oke, who tries to make the aliens part of his congregation. Many people try to flee the city, where some are reacting to the alien presence with riots, looting and violence. The aliens in turn react to humanity with curiosity and kindness, but also devastating brutality.

It’s a story in which Lagos itself is part of the narrative. Adaora suggests that the aliens chose the city because “If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.” It’s a city of contradictions. With all its walls and gates, Chris says, “It’s secure but there is no security.” Adaora describes it as a city where everyone wants to leave but no one ever goes; people want to return as soon as they step out. The city is “riddled with corruption” but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The writing is flavoured with Nigerian culture – there are lots of local words and expressions, and some of the characters speak in pidgin English, which takes some getting used to. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but I didn’t find this until I’d finished, and it could be highly impractical for eBook readers who want to flip back and forth.

Culture, social circumstances, religion and folklore also play a major role. Adaora is having serious personal problems with her husband Chris, who has become convinced that Adaora is not merely a marine biologist but a marine witch (the worst kind of witch) and that the home laboratory he built for her is a witch’s den. It was when he turned to physical violence that Adaora stormed out and went to Bar Beach where the ocean engulfed her.

Chris isn’t the only one thinking of witches though; many Lagosians see the aliens from the perspective of traditional beliefs, of which witches and shape-shifters are a part. Adaora mentions that she wishes her grandmother could have seen the aliens, because she believed in shape-shifters. Of course not everyone is optimistic – lots of people think the aliens are evil and a threat to deeply ingrained beliefs. When more of the aliens emerge and take human form, the violence escalates. It’s also influenced by poverty and hardship. As Agu notes, people are using it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations.

Creatures from myth and folklore also appear. I thought they were the aliens in other forms, but they’re the creatures themselves. One of my favourite scenes is when a gravelly monster – the personification of a dangerous road – rises up and faces an alien who has taken the form of a Nigerian soap opera celebrity.

Thus science fiction and fantasy become entwined to the point that you can’t fit this book neatly in either genre. Aliens are the stuff of sf and Ayodele describes her race as being technology, but since we have so little understanding of how they do things that their abilities feel like magic. Like the way they alter the marine life in the ocean by giving the creatures what they desire. A swordfish in the opening chapter becomes a big, badass monster (this chapter is the story “Moom!” in Okorafor’s collection Kabu Kabu). The aliens hack into human technology so that crystal clear video broadcasts appear appear on TVs, computers and phones, even if it goes beyond the devices’ capabilities. It’s sci fi that feels like fantasy. Adaora talks about taking refuge in science, but she, Agu and Anthony have all had powerful, fantastical abilities since childhood, none of which she can explain in scientific terms.

Not that Adaora has the luxury of studying the aliens or her abilities; there’s too much going on. For the reader though, there isn’t actually much of a plot. The As – Adaora, Agu and Anthony – have vague goals, which include getting the sickly Nigerian president to negotiate with the aliens, but their plans are frequently thwarted, so progress is slow. In addition the story frequently hops to other POVs, many of which do not contribute to the main plot, although they add texture and colour to the bigger picture.

And there are loads of POV characters – the three As, Adaora’s husband Chris, their kids Kola and Fred, Adaora’s maid Philo, Philo’s boyfriend Moziz, his friend Jacobs, Jacobs’s prostitute sister Fisayo, a mute child, Father Oke. And those are just the recurring characters. We also hear from a 419 scammer, a bat, and a seven-legged spider.

It’s a riot of a story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Anthony mentions, Lagos rhymes with chaos, and the city is chaotic even on an average day. The arrival of the aliens sends it into overdrive, and the novel gives us a large, detailed sketch of what that looks like. You get the sense that this is a massive, wild story that can’t be easily contained, so Okorafor chose to depict it as such rather than going for a more traditionally streamlined narrative. And she handles it pretty well – it’s fairly easy to keep track of everything.

But, admittedly, I struggled to get invested in the story. I’d start to engage with a particular character’s struggles, only to be whisked off to see through other POVs. The three As and Ayodele get the most page-time, but I found them to be the least interesting characters. In all the chaos, I was never sure what would happen and or what I wanted to happen; I just sat back and watched it unfold. It’s all open-ended, and the novel closes without any major resolutions. It’s more like the beginning of what will be a long, epochal story, but Okorafor didn’t intend to write a sequel. What’s also frustrating is that we never see the aliens in their “true” forms, never learn what happens when they speak to the humans underwater, and only have a vague idea of what they want. It’s a contact story focused almost entirely on the human reaction in Lagos.

I wouldn’t say this is badly written in the way that some novels with too many characters and POVs are. It’s a kind of planned chaos, rather than a story gone amorphously out of control, and I have no criticisms of Okorafor’s writing. So I can appreciate what she did with novel, even if I didn’t get as wrapped up in it as I would have liked to. Time will tell if it’s made enough of an impression on me that I’ll start to admire it more, or if it’s going to fade from memory. But hey, that gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover drove me to buy the book in print, so I’ll probably read it again one day.