Meet your cast of characters: Angels and ghost frogs, transdimensional komodo dragons and secret forces using luna moths for surveillance. Want to traverse space and time to avoid the komodos tracking your scent? All you have to do let yourself be devoured by a giant undead bear. Confused yet? You should be. But this is the secret world our nameless narrator has stumbled into, ever since being rescued by the angels from an exploding airplane. And she’ll make sense of it for you, or die trying.
“Komodo” is my first foray into the writing of Jeff VanderMeer, known for his Southern Reach trilogy. It was while I was looking up those books that this digital “novelette” first came to my attention. This is one of those situations where the title and cover hooked drew me in significantly. I’m a sucker for reptiles. The promise of a weird science fiction story involving “transdimensional komodo dragons” sold me completely.
At the onset the story was a lot to take in. It is narrated in the first person by the unnamed main character, who is telling her story to a “child” whom she chose simply to be an audience—along with an initially unspecified “they.” What made the experience jarring was not really the narrative itself, which does dive right into strangeness without much context, but the fact that our narrator continually backpedals on information she has given, either explaining how things really happened or pointing on that she is using language and descriptions we can understand to describe something otherworldly. This captures the frame of the story well, reading like the storyteller very much wants to get their tale across to you, but doesn’t really know where to start.
I was captivated by the fast-paced sequence of events and bizarre, imaginative ideas presented to me, but the story didn’t really pick up for me until I found a thread I could more closely follow. This became apparent after the narrator was purposefully devoured by an undead bear. A lot to take in indeed. As it progresses the strange plot developments and details mount, but not at the expense of a plot one can follow if they pay well enough attention. Sometimes my recollections feel indistinct and dreamlike when I try to remember the smaller details as the story went along, but there is still that thread; a wonderful anchor of understanding that holds it all together for me.
While the oddities of the tale firmly sit centre-stage, there are poignant aspects to it that really hit home too. The narrator was once an ordinary human, but “angels” forcefully recruited her to be an agent of theirs across space, time, and different realities. She is aware of alternate versions of herself, as well as her husband William whom she lost, but is resigned to her fate while taking comfort that out there she is also living a simpler, happy life. While dealing with struggles against cosmic forces and impending doom, it’s also the story of a singular person—from one mere reality against the backdrop of so many—who wants to matter and have her story known. She wants to be more than a blip doomed to be forgotten.
As far as oddball science fiction goes, “Komodo” felt like the deep end of the pool. I enjoy the genre, so I was more than happy to dive in, but I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge. My fascination with it is still newfound. Nevertheless I loved the imaginatively weird places the story took me and the ludicrous sense it somehow made. If you like your stories more grounded, I wouldn’t recommend it. If any of the strangeness I’ve mentioned piques your interest I say check it out. It’s just the right length, so it’s not too overwhelming, and it’s inexpensive to boot.
My rating: 4 out of 5