The Southern Reach Trilogy


A masterpost of all three reviews of Jeff VanderMeer’s exceptional, 6-out-of-5 rated Southern Reach Trilogy.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the first authors – long before this blog was even an idea in the back of my mind – who I had the pleasure of making contact with.  I wrote a terrible short play in college set in his marvelous city called Ambergris and I’d emailed him back and forth about it, with questions about the grey caps and the city history and all those things.  And Ambergris is one of my favorite fictional haunts, all these years later – Albemuth Boulevard still sometimes appears in my dreams, during the festival of the great squid.

And so when it was announced that Jeff had landed an exceptional deal for a new trilogy of novels – all published in one calendar year, a movie deal with Scott Rudin – I couldn’t’ve been more excited.  It had been too long since I’d delved into the uniquely strange mind and I wanted it, as soon as I could possibly have it.  So, hey, thanks to the fine folks at FSG for feeding my need and sending along an advance copy of Annihilation as well as putting me on the list for Authority and Acceptance.  I only wish time could speed ahead faster now, so that I could dive right into those ASAP.

But okay, the book itself.  For those unfamiliar with Jeff’s work, he’s a practitioner of the Weird.  And he has a singular interest in the way nature can get strange – and how it can pervert the human form.  A moment early on in the novel reminded me of the spores that infect Wyte in Finch – but whether or not these novels take place in the same universe as those is irrelevant.  Because Area X is a confusing, strange, indescribable place, the things that happen there do not actually make much sense – so the question of “this world? that world? another world?” matter very little at this point.

This may be frustrating to a certain type of reader.  There are not only a seemingly infinite number of questions that arise from this opening salvo of the trilogy, but (in a masterstroke of incredibly assured literary skill) VanderMeer actually manages to deliver the sensation via words of things being unanswerable because they cannot even be fully encompassed by the way we use words to describe things.  There is a hallucinatory effect in the writing, especially as the pages dwindle down, that I found absolutely spectacular.  Readers who aren’t so much into the strange may find it less-so – because, for me anyway, I found that the image centers of my brain (the ones that translate the words on the page into the world I see in my head) were short-circuiting.  Not unlike, I now realize, those of the botanist, too.  This trick, if I can call it that, brought me closer to the protagonist than anything else – we were both facing something indescribable and the best she could do to describe it was still just a jumble of things and sensations and thoughts and, as a result, the reader gets a very palpable sensation of just how messed up things actually are.

We’re never given much detail on our characters – no one gets a proper name, instead just referred to as their job title.  This goes, too, for the botanist’s husband – he’s simply her husband.  This detachment of course sets the reader up for a transient relationship to the characters in a sort of horror-film way and that’s not terribly inaccurate.  I don’t know that I’d call this a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel or any of those things that the Weird so often gets lumped into… but horror is the one that comes closest.  This is, at its core, a terrifying novel – not just because of the scary things that happen on the page (and there are plenty of things that are definitely scary) but because of the underlying concepts that build in a sort of feedback loop over the course of the whole book.  This strange region, changed somehow after some capital-e Event earlier in the book, is run (or watched over?) by a shadowy group who clearly don’t have people’s best interests at heart and who are – it would seem – aware that the natural world within the border of Area X is changing.  The world, our world, is rebelling.  Not against us, not necessarily – although I’d say that the strikeout record for these expeditions might argue that humans (as we currently exist) aren’t really meant for that area – but rather just against what we (as the dominant species) have come to understand as the ‘natural order’ of things.  It’s like a less specific version of particular evolutionary trait found in The Ruins – things aren’t supposed to work that way and yet here they are, doing just that.

Basically: This book is cool as shit.  The overriding sensation that I have, after finishing it and now writing about it, is that it is just going to be (if there’s any justice in the world) the trilogy to talk about next year.  Sure, there are people who may find it way too out there and way too strange.  Those people also probably would not laugh at this video here (SQUIDPUNK!).  But no one else is writing like Jeff these days.  There are people who are writing equally as crazy stuff, like China Miéville, but they’re all doing it in their own ways.  If there’s any justice in the world, before Area X expands to change us all, this’ll be the trilogy that launches Jeff into the recognition he deserves.  Within the first few pages of this book, you’ll feel it – a brightness inside you, something changing.  Embrace it – I promise you won’t be disappointed in the end.

Okay.  Okay okay okay.  Elevator pitch: where Annihilation was Lovecraftian wilderness adventure, this is le Carré-meets-The Thing.  AND IT IS AWESOME.

Allow me to explain.  It has been said that Jeff approached the trilogy as three stops on a widening lens – the first book is the super-narrow focus, which then zooms out to a wider frame for book two (and presumably again for book three, although who knows).  This is entirely accurate – but it misses the explanation that, not unlike his Ambergris trilogy, each book ends up stylistically different as well.  Annihilation was first-person, almost journalistic – like bursts of ‘confessionals’ on a reality show.  Authority is third-person, with a looming sinister something in the background… and shot on the dilapidated sets of a forgotten 70s spy/horror film.

Not surprisingly, VanderMeer uses the zoom-out to provide information we didn’t have before.  Some of it is minor-shading stuff, like details about what the members of twelfth expedition actually looked like.  A lot of it, though, is huge – like, “completely throws the first book into a new perspective” huge.  Naturally, it’s hard to talk about it without spoilers and so I’ll leave it there – but the revelations are doled out with perfect pacing, dropping the reader’s jaw on a regular basis and revving up the engine towards the ending.

Aesthetically, I keep coming back to the idea of this novel as the ’70s novel, for some reason.  I was not alive during the ’70s (sorry) so this is purely based on the novels and films I’ve consumed from that time period – and, on that basis, it makes sense.  Let’s start with “Control” – an homage to le Carré (Rodriguez even alludes to it early in the books) that puts an informed reader into the mindset of, well, a shady government agency.  Instead of a mole at the top of the Circus, though, we’re dealing with… well, something way weirder.  And the weird comes in like it does with The Thing or SyFy’s current Helix (I only make that reference for atmosphere, not for content) – you get the sense that it’s not just the light above Control’s desk that flickers but probably every third light has that weird fluorescent shudder.  And the hallways stretch on forever.  And the carpet and paint jobs are probably untouched from whenever they were installed, which was (according to the rough timeline of the novel and assuming we’re in the ‘present day’) probably about 35-40 years ago.

This is all to say: the atmosphere is creepy.  Both in a “oooooo spooky!” way and in a clandestine, be careful because someone might be listening way.  An early scene in which Control finds a hilarious number of bugs in his office (I’m sorry if that’s considered a spoiler…) strikes this balance perfectly: you’re creeped out by the office itself, creeped out by the sense of being spied on, and there’s also that third thing… that ‘something weird’ that hovers above it all like fog that won’t quite descend into town.

Jeff continues to play at bigger themes in these books, too.  Let’s take the names for example.  We’re not given any names or descriptions in Annihilation, other than that the four expedition members are female – and thus we get to create them for ourselves.  In this book, characters are given names and descriptions – but there is a lingering sense that these are facades.  They are costumes.  They are not quite who these people are.  Control is a nickname – what does it say about John?  Grace makes a wry comment when he introduces himself as Control about how he should call her “Patience” – names are only as strong as what we imbue them with.  The same goes for Area X, the border, etc.  There’s a lot of talk here about our inarticulacy, our inability to accurate compass let alone describe things.  We saw it with the Crawler and with the tower in book one – and now we see that it’s not just the truly weird but really everything that we encounter, including one another, that turns on how we choose to describe or name it.  A rose by any other name might smell as sweet – but what you see as a tunnel might be a tower to someone else.  A barrier might be a roadmap.  A doorway might not be something you can pass through at all.
It’s really stunning, thoughtful stuff – and the fact that the novel delivers on the high-concept level as well as on the visceral, turn-the-pages-fast-as-you-can story level is proof in the pudding of Jeff’s exceptional talent firing on all cylinders.

Back, for a moment, to my earlier point about avoiding spoilers.  The only thing I will say is this: you do, in fact, get answers here.  So often these days, we get wary of these big mysteries because we don’t want to get suckered into another LOST.  We don’t want to be left frustrated at the end of the series (however long it may be) because too many questions were raised without satisfying resolutions.  This is clearly not the case with the Southern Reach Trilogy: Authority answers plenty of questions raised both by Annihilation and by its own contents.  It also successfully raises new questions, keeps a couple of major ones open, and propels the reader forward with a sense of… I suppose trust is the right word.  We believe that VanderMeer is guiding us towards… something.  We certainly don’t know what, but you finish this book with the belief that there will be resolution.  There will be a kind of satisfaction.  I have absolutely no idea what that’s going to look like – but I couldn’t be more excited for Acceptance.

When I was young – probably couldn’t’ve been older than 11 or 12 – I visited some family on the coast of Maine and we drove out onto this island for dinner.  During the dinner, a fog rolled in off the water and the land around us disappeared – and when we walked outside, it was as though the world was suddenly being re-revealed to us as the fog drifted back out to sea.  That sensation, a mix of wonder and terror and curiosity that I’m not sure I’ve ever quite experienced since, is the best way to describe my reaction to Acceptance and arguably to the Southern Reach trilogy as a whole.

We pick up the story, intriguingly enough, in the second person – and we’re warped back to the end of Annihilation, seeing a pivotal encounter between the biologist and the psychologist from the point of view of the latter.  The story then proceeds to jump between four particular points of view: Control (aka John Rodriguez, of Authority), the former director of Southern Reach, Ghost Bird (the returned biologist), and the lighthouse keeper from before Area X was Area X.  Time begins to develop a non-linear feel as we leapfrog between the ‘present’ and various points in the past – either during the lead-up to Annihilation or in the lead-up to Area X’s… arrival?  Appearance?  It’s difficult to say, and not just for fear of spoilers.  The tenses bounce between second and third and first and the reader gets caught up in a sort of breathless maelstrom, grabbing pieces of information as they zip by and attempting to make the puzzle make sense rather on the fly.  It’s a delightful challenge and the puzzle, I’m pleased to say, outfoxed me: there were pieces that went in places I never could’ve dreamed and I was delighted to discover their true meanings.

As for meanings… in any concluding installment of a trilogy, the open / unanswered questions must be addressed – in one way or another – and most readers will seek some kind of resolution to be quote-unquote satisfied.  And I have to be honest, I was genuinely surprised by just how much resolution we ended up getting.  The final scenes of Acceptance are trilogy-enders in a sort of classic mold, harkening back to everything from Lord of the Rings to the Indiana Jones movies: there is closure, to an extent, even if things haven’t been explained to your particular satisfaction (ed. note: they were, to mine) and there’s a little bit of riding-off-into-the-sunset and there’s even a little bit of deeply felt emotional release.  As I read the Epilogue, I was very conscious of a deep sighing release of air coupled with a slight tension in my chest – the sort of thing that feels almost more cathartic than actual tears.  I was so upset to let this universe go but at the same time I was profoundly satisfied with the conclusion that was presented to me.  There was no deus ex machina, there was no “oh, it was really XYZ the whole time”, none of that – there are still questions and there is room for an imagination to run wild (pun lightly intended), but there is also very definitely an ending.  I’d say it’s almost cinematic, which will hopefully make the team prepping the trilogy for film happy.

But what else, really, can I say at this point?  The lens continued to widen through these books – from a very specific pinpoint in time and space, to a wider look at roughly that same time, to a broader look at that place throughout time.  And each time, the assuredness of the author was felt by me as a reader.  I was able to open myself up to the utter weirdness of these stories, the things that I almost couldn’t even picture because they were so strange, because I trusted that the author knew where he was going.  Jeff does not have a showy style, per se – he’s not doing things where you’d say “oh, that’s a Jeff VanderMeer sentence” – but he has a self-confidence that soaks into each page.  It lets you know, subtly, that this is all headed towards… something.  And that something does exist and it is there and we’ll get there soon.  But where readers give themselves over to fantasy epics or, in the past, to serialized real-world novels quite easily, it’s a harder thing to ask someone to jump into something where your mind is going to be bent.  We’ve been burned before, more often than not, but mind-bending stories that collapsed under the weight of their own weirdness.  But Jeff escapes from that curse by (as it appeared to my mind, anyway) simply just allowing himself to go where the weirdness needed him to go.  It’s a lesson that a lot of other writers – not just of Weird fiction but of any fiction, at all – would do well to embrace: let your particular flag fly and trust that your imagination is gonna get you there.  Your readers will follow.

I look forward to reading the trilogy again in a single fell swoop, perhaps later this fall.  I want to look more deeply into the things that seemed to echo from book to book, the phrases and ideas.  And quite plainly, I want to revisit the world.  But for now, I have a feeling of contentment that is all too rare with series.  The story that was told, concluding here, was told exactly how it needed to be told.  Everything about it feels right.  To so skillfully thread the needle of mystery and revelation is a success in and of itself – but to also add so much new information without overwhelming the reader is yet another kind of success.  I could go on at length, but I might start veering into spoilers… so, suffice it to say: what an exceptional book and an exceptional trilogy.  And one that will linger, hauntingly, in my memories for a good long while.

Rating: 6 out of 5



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