The ‘Southern Reach’ Trilogy

Area X is the world’s biggest secret – a mysterious and desolate stretch of American coastline which has been declared an ecological disaster zone and sealed away from the public for thirty years. The truth, unknown even to the army units that guard the border of this restricted zone, is stranger still. Some sort of supernatural event occurred three decades ago, and every resident of what has become Area X vanished overnight. Anyone attempting to cross the invisible border between Area X and the outside world will vanish too. The only entrance into this strange wilderness is through a doorway of white light, and once this threshold is passed there’s no guarantee of making it back alive. The Southern Reach, the ultra-secret government agency founded to investigate Area X, has sent eleven expeditions through this gateway over the decades. Some ended in inexplicable firefights or mass suicide. The eleventh expedition returned without any memory of what happened to them during their mission, and succumbed within weeks to an aggressive cancer that seemed to generate from every organ in their bodies. So far there has been no twelfth expedition.

This is the set-up for Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, all three books of which were published last year. Since it’s my belief he wrote them all as one piece of work (and the unorthodox release schedule seems to bear this out), I’m going to review all three volumes – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – in one post. These books were some of the most talked about sci-fi releases last year, and Annihilation won the 2014 Nebula award for best novel. I’ll give a brief outline of each book, and then discuss what I thought of the trilogy as a whole. 

Annihilation is the shortest and most self-contained of the novels, and would work just fine as its own story without the follow-ups. It takes the form of an expedition journal written by a nameless female biologist, a member of an all-female twelfth expedition sent into Area X, a supernatural disaster zone located in North Florida (we’re never actually told this, but VanderMeer said he took inspiration for the novels’ landscape from the St Marks Wildlife Refuge in Northern Florida, and Area X’s flora and fauna, including alligators, seem to bear this out). The novel opens with the female scientists already in the field, discovering a strange tunnel-like structure which seems to spiral down into the earth. They investigate the structure’s interior and we’re treated to the expedition unravelling into madness and fear.

Authority is longer and seems less well-received by readers, although it might’ve been my favorite entry in the series. We switch locations from Area X to the Southern Reach, the organization that investigates it. The Director of the Southern Reach has vanished, and Control – a young spy – has been parachuted in by the Reach’s parent organization, Central, to take the reins and find out what exactly is going on. This book is a much slower burn than Annihilation, and I can see why the change from wilderness adventure story to office-cubicle drama might grate on some people, but I really liked seeing the mysterious Southern Reach from the inside – I had presumed the Reach would remain shadowy antagonists throughout the series, but we meet all the personnel right off the bat and they’re not what I expected at all. The threat in this novel is less obvious, but Control is in much deeper waters than he knows, and it becomes clear that while the Southern Reach has been gazing into the abyss, the abyss has also been gazing into them.

Acceptance is the finale, and for reasons of not wanting to spoil the plot is really difficult to talk about. After the explosive ending to Authority, a thirteenth expedition crosses the border into Area X, searching for answers. Whereas the previous volumes were centered on one character each, Acceptance is all over the place, with four narrators speaking from four different places in the timeline. This can be pretty jarring at times – I really connected with Control and wanted to know what was going to happen to him, but the final novel was much more interested in telling me about the doings of two other characters, one of whom I had presumed was a villain. We learn more about the creation of Area X, and more about the internal workings of Central, the CIA-like government security organization that may be the home of the real evil in the series. No single character finds all the answers, but by following all four stories we begin to see an outline of the big picture. I thought Acceptance was probably the weakest of the three novels, mainly due to this lack of focus, but I have to admire the way it threw me some curve-balls – I especially enjoyed learning more about Lowry, the only survivor of the first expedition into Area X. It’s difficult to end a trilogy that leans so much on the unknown and inexplicable, since your audience will expect you to reveal some explanation for what has been happening to the characters, but explain too much or reveal an explanation that’s unsatisfying and you will lose them (I felt the Hyperion novels, which I also read this year, suffered a little from this during the final stages). VanderMeer clearly never intended to fully explain Area X, but I thought the pieces of answers we got in the final volume were mostly satisfying. 

My overwhelming impression of these books is that they’re not what I was expecting. From my descriptions of their plots they may sound like pretty generic sci-fi thrillers, but the trilogy really doesn’t play out that way at all. Large portions of the final novel are devoted to the daily routine of a lighthouse keeper in the 1970s. The trilogy isn’t easy to catergorise, moving from adventure story to meditation on the unknown to something that comes off almost like nature writing – the landscape of Area X is now totally free from man-made pollution, and is described in Annihilation almost in Eden-like terms at certain points. I was reminded of photographs taken by expeditions into Chernobyl. I think ultimately the novels are about mystery and the unknown and the human response to that – Area X is essentially the biggest unknown on the planet, and the characters and institutions within the narrative react to this in different ways. At the end of the trilogy the characters are mostly no closer to understanding Area X than they were at the start, although some of them are learning to live with this. The supernatural elements are mainly employed in order to make the characters and reader face the limits of their own knowledge. There certainly are moments of balls-out supernatural horror, including a scene in Authority that made my skin crawl when reading, but a great deal of the narrative is in character moments and observation of nature. As I’ve said, Annihilation is the most conventional horror-story of the three books – an isolated scientific expedition come up against events that are totally inexplicable, lose their shit – and has echoes of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but the following novels are not really structured like this. Authority is partly about struggling to live up to your family’s idea of who you should be – Control isn’t cut out for the spy work he’s been given, and it’s clear his mother, placed high-up in Central, is the only reason he’s in the job at all. Both the first two novels are about characters who struggle to understand Area X, while Acceptance is about learning to live with the unknown, with death, and although it contains one truly grotesque scene it’s not much of a horror story either.

I wouldn’t recommend these books to anyone who’s uncomfortable with narrative ambiguity. I definitely had some moments where I felt like I was reading through the novel equivalent of Lost – an enormous amount of wheel-spinning to disguise the fact that the author didn’t have a clue what Area X was or why it was there. Having reached the end of the trilogy, I feel this isn’t the case, but if you’re hoping someone will come in at the end and say “We worked it out, this is an extra-dimensional portal and it’s turning our world into Planet Xurbgug”, you’re out of luck. I think VanderMeer mostly gets away with this ambiguity. If there was an internal logic to some of the events that occurred within Area X, they were still a mystery to me by the end, although some of the other strangenesses observed during Annihilation do turn out to have good explanations for them in later books. I really liked how Area X is handled while the narrators are inside it though – VanderMeer really captures that there’s something off about the place, despite it mostly looking like Floridian wilderness. The characters rarely see anything supernatural, but there’s a consistent sense of things being askew, that something might be happening in the corner of your eye. There’s a motif of cancer throughout the trilogy, and you get the feeling that every cell of every creature in Area X might be affected or changed somehow, pretending to be itself as long as someone is looking at it.

The prose otherwise is totally adequate and does the job. I can’t remember a phrase or image that stuck with me just by itself; this isn’t Nabokov, and if you want something to enjoy for language alone I’d look elsewhere. I think they’re more mood pieces – the sentences themselves aren’t special individually, but the overall effect they add up to is quite different to anything else I’ve read recently. If you’re looking for something that goes outside the box and don’t mind reading a lot of nature writing along with your sci-fi, I’d recommend this trilogy.

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