LitStack Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

by Sharon Browning
The Southern Reach TrilogySouthern Reach trilogy
Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance
Jeff VanderMeer
Release Date:  February 2, 2014 / May 6, 2014 / September 2, 2014
ISBN:  Annihilation – 978-0-374-10409-2; Authority – 978-0-374-10410-8; Acceptance – 978-0-374-10411-5

Back in November, when I wrote a recommendation for Annihilation, the opening book in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, the plan was to pen a recommendation on each of the three books rather than wait for one long review – or three reviews, or even a mix of reviews and recommendations.  But about two chapters into Authority, the second volume, I realized that trying to separate these three books was sheer folly, regardless of how it was done.

The books themselves almost defy description; each is meaningless without the others.  Oh, I suppose you could say that the first one sets the stage, the second one gives the background and the third one melds everything together, but that would be a gross oversimplification.  Yet this statement may be the closest I can to opening up a discussion of the trilogy without jumping through some strange, incomprehensible looking glass.  I’ll take a stab, though, at further explication.

In Annihilation, we accompany a group of government-recruited scientists on their expedition to explore the mysterious Area X, which lies on the other side of a strange ethereal border that has inexplicably appeared, or descended, or materialized around a large swatch of land on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.  Anyone or anything who attempts to enter Area X anywhere save by a small “doorway” simply ceases to exist; whether they die or are transitioned or transported elsewhere is unknown, but they are never seen again.

There is much speculation but no explanation for Area X.  (The curious are told that an ecological disaster occurred there, and that it is not safe to approach – which explains the government troops guarding the perimeter.)  Past expeditions have discovered, however, that Area X has become a pristine environment, completely devoid of pollutants or manmade contaminants in the air, the soil, the water, even at the molecular level.  Expected wildlife seems to thrive there, perhaps inordinately so; the climate continues, manmade structures that existed when Area X first appeared still stand (although they appear to have decayed and been taken over by creeping vegetation at a much faster rate than expected).  But it’s hard to make headway on analysis because any equipment of an active technological bent is “rejected”.  Those expedition members using cell phones, diagnostic equipment, computers, etc., have been attacked by unknown forces; unknown because very few expedition members have ever returned, and those who have are vague – or worse – about what they remember.  There are other… anomalies, both geographical and biological, on the other side of the Border, but little is known about them due to the challenges of Area X.

The Eleventh Expedition, made up of a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist and a biologist (all women; we purposefully are never meant to learn their names), are there to continue investigations built on prior expeditions’ progress, and to document and report on what they find by way of handwritten journal.  (A fifth expedition member, a linguist, lost heart at the last minute and never made it to the Border.)  This expedition’s journey into Area X, what they found and how they reacted, make up the first book of the trilogy.

Authority takes place mainly at the Southern Reach, the research facility whose sole clandestine purpose is to study Area X.  Located a few miles from the Border, it hosts scientists, administrators and researchers that operate under the auspices of Central, a shadowy governmental agency whose strong-arm tactics hint more at factional maneuvering than a desire for scientific discovery or concern for national security.  John Rodriguez – who goes by the moniker of “Control” – is the newly appointed Director of the Southern Reach; he also just happens to be the son of a former Central spy who has now ensconced herself somewhere in the upper echelons of the agency.

Control intends to guide the Southern Reach out of the inertia that it has slid into; without adequate information and evidence at their disposal to constantly churn out exciting or beneficial reports, the funding for Southern Reach has been dropping steadily.  Internally, a lack of transparency at all levels of the organization has morale at an all time low with paranoia as an alarming main output.  But Control is hampered by the perception of being both a government insider and a Southern Reach outsider.  The Assistant Director especially is openly hostile to him; her loyalties still lie with the former Director, and she takes great pleasure at thwarting Control’s every move.  Authority is mainly Control’s story (although other characters take center stage), and it leads him – and us – to strange, alarming and ultimately terrifying, bizarre places.

By the time we reach Acceptance we still have lots of questions, but there is a sense that perhaps we now have some solid footing to stand on.  Silly us!  While yes, some confusing factors become clearer, what we discover only adds more mystery to the puzzle of Area X rather than alleviating it.  Yes, the separate viewpoints of Annihilation and Authority combine – Area X and the Southern Reach – but there are no simple answers here.  Strangely, though, by now there’s a definite sense that we would have been disappointed had there been simple, easily explained away answers.  It feels eerily appropriate that the more we learn, the more we wonder.

Much of this is due to the writing in The Southern Reach Trilogy – it is simply astounding.  Erudite but lyrical, author Jeff VanderMeer is able to enthrall us even while we are completely lost at what is happening.  By the third book, we get the feeling that knowing what’s going on isn’t exactly the endgame here.

She stopped to face him, to lend emphasis, and something like anger pulsed out from her.  “Have you not understood yet that whatever’s causing this can manipulate the genome, works miracles of mimicry and biology?  Knows what to do with molecules and membranes, can peer through things, can surveil, and then withdraw.  That, to it, a smartphone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature.  Perhaps it doesn’t even think that we have consciousness or free will – not in the ways it measures such things.”

“If that’s true, why does it pay us any attention at all?”

“It probably extends to us the least attention possible.”

Is there something in the corner of your eye that you cannot get out?

This is a concept that is somewhat foreign to future ecological disaster type fiction but is revealed in the Southern Reach trilogy – that there is perhaps no real understanding to be had when something this monumental happens.  That what to us is cataclysmic is, to some other mind, merely the buzzing of a fly hitting the windowpane, unable to comprehend the concept of a barrier to what it believes to be expected.  We may occasionally pull the focus of … whatever it is … but we are of little concern to it.  Or them.  Or that.  Or whatever.

This should be bleak for us – a sense of impending doom that lies squarely within Area X and with those who have knowledge of it.  Is Area X expanding?  Or is Area X something else entirely that displaces our understanding of what we believe it to be?  Ultimately, our need to know is inconsequential – but that doesn’t make it any less compelling or less beautiful.

The Southern Reach Trilogy and the thoughts contained within it, are frightening and marvelous and strange, all in the same breath.  They – the books and ideas – are not easily read but are intrinsically felt.  It’s a wonderful experience, even without the answers.

Perhaps especially because there are no answers.

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