Print Edition: January 14, 2015
There’s something strange and wonderful about Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. If it were a recipe of genres, it would be three parts horror, two parts psychological thriller, three parts sci-fi, one part linguistics, and two parts literary fiction. If it were an organism, it would be alien, motile, and malignant. Yet they’re books, and damned good ones. There is a unified volume containing all three novels, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. I’m glad I read them as separate volumes; however, waiting to buy the next in the series nearly killed me. They’re some of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
The trilogy opens with Annihilation — the shortest of the three — written as a field journal into a mysterious anomaly along the Florida coast known only as Area X. It is written by a woman known only as “the Biologist.” She is part of a four-woman team, with the other three members sharing equally ambiguous names: “the Surveyor,” “the Anthropologist,” and “the Psychologist.” The four of them are tasked with discovering the secrets of Area X, and as expected, the expedition does not go as planned.
One of the chief achievements of this novel, and the series as a whole, is the atmosphere of strangeness that permeates beyond the words on the page. Though the world around the Biologist appears normal, there is always the feeling that there is something wrong with it.
Vandermeer is a master when it comes to articulating this atmosphere. He instills a feeling of uneasiness and weirdness from the get-go just by how he frames the novel. And much of the strangeness seems to come from the humanity of the other characters.
Area X changes people, and as I kept reading, I felt it was beginning to change me in some way too. The language of the novel, the strangeness of its passages, and the failing humanity of some of its characters seemed to chisel away at my mind as I read it, drawing me further into the book as I went along — and this was only the first volume.
[pullquote]“Area X changes people, and as I kept reading, I felt it was beginning to change me in some way too.”[/pullquote]
With the sequel, Authority, the atmosphere changes. We are greeted with the protagonist known as “Control.” He has a name, but he goes by a title. He is the new director of the Southern Reach, and in charge of sending expeditions, though he is stuck cleaning up the mess of the previous one from the first novel. Authority exudes that strange, alien feeling of Area X. We’re given a government facility in a normal — albeit a little futuristic — world, yet still the strangeness remains.
Although it’s my least favourite of the trilogy, and other reviewers feel it’s somewhat inflated, I feel this novel was just as strong as the first in many ways. It brings far more problems to the equation, and aims to solve some of them.
However, one of the joys of this novel is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with solutions. Vandermeer lets the explanation of Area X hide in the background of the book’s language. The solution is there, but it’s up to the reader to solve it. That being said, it’s nothing a Google search can’t assist. Despite the second novel’s inflation, I feel the added focus on the humanity of the characters in the Southern Reach adds to the depth of the series. It gives us the other side of the focus, and allows us to juxtapose the strangeness of Area X against something more real — though that reality is quickly called into question.
Finally, the third novel, Acceptance, approaches the origins of Area X. I found this somewhat confounded the atmosphere created by the previous two novels, and was probably my least favourite of the three. Instead of a singular narrative, the reader is split between three different points of view. The strangeness remains, but the layers begin to peel back a little.
However, with so many areas of focus, I felt the pace of the novel drastically shifted, and not for the better. One of the points of view only seemed to add history and context to the other points of view, while another added understanding to the actions of the first novel. There was really only one point of view moving the story forward, and this drew me out of the novel. In the end, though, I got an ending I wasn’t expecting. It was both satisfying and as weird as the rest of the series.
What Jeff Vandermeer has done with the Southern Reach trilogy is construct a masterpiece. Within it are many deeper discussions of humanity, society, language, and nature. I feel like though Area X changed me as I read it, it changed me for the better, and there’s nothing better than a series of books that has a narrative and message so strong it strikes you right at the core.