The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Comprised of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is a fascinating journey into weird fiction by one of the sub-genres most prominent adherents. Nominally the series deals with the strange locale known only as Area X. Area X is a strange morass of wilderness where things are more than a little off kilter. The events that created Area X are unknown, protected by a strange barrier the expeditions into Area X have rarely turned up anything except perhaps more mystery.

Annihilation opens the trilogy following the twelfth expedition into Area X. The tale of the journey is narrated by the expedition’s biologist as she chronicles her the expedition. This is a very strong novel that stands firmly on its own. VanderMeer sets a masterful tone alternating between the creeping dread of Area X and its wanders and the nostalgia of the biologist’s past. Interweaving the unsettling environs of Area X with the biologist’s past experiences sets up an interesting dichotomy that somehow manages to enhance the isolated feeling of the novel. Annihilation offers up many more questions than it provides answers for from the strange tower/tunnel, to the strange fauna, to the mysterious importance of the oddly fortified lighthouse. Each new element of Area X revealed in Annihilation manages to enhance its unsettling effects. The fact that the mystery is never really solved is irrelevant to the story at hand as the biologist’s personal journey through her own memories is brought to the fore over the course of the novel. Annihilation is a novel that lingers once it’s complete and while it does leave an open ending feels like a complete tale in and of itself.

The expeditions sent into Area X are overseen by the mysterious Southern Reach, an organization that is explored more thoroughly in Authority. With the Southern Reach’s director gone missing it is Control who takes up the reigns in the interim. Over the course of the novel he plumbs the mysteries of Area X through the Southern Reach. The novel exposes the history of Area X and the Southern Reach somehow managing to deepen the mystery of its existence despite being on the outside looking in. VanderMeer infuses the hallways of the Southern Reach with a sense of claustrophobia. Control seems assaulted on all sides be mystery driven to press ever forward into the unknown by his handlers but constantly beset at every turn by an organization seemingly corrupted by the very thing it has set out to study. Authority feels like a distinctly different novel from Annihilation. Where in Annihilation readers get a look at how the landscape inside of Area X has changed and how the changes way upon the minds of those who explore it Authority looks at how the very presence of Area X weighs upon the minds of those who exist on the outside of looking in. Once again VanderMeer offers very little in terms of answers instead somehow managing to call in many, if not all, of the conclusions readers may have been able to draw from the previous novel.

In Acceptance VanderMeer begins to finally answer some of Area X’s mysteries…sort of. While both Annihilation and Authority deep the mystery and lore of Area X and somehow manage to provide two fascinating character studies with both Control and the biologist it felt to me like they set up an almost an impossible task for the final volume. To explain everything about Area X would be an easy way to diminish the effectiveness of the series as a whole. This set up a rather impossible task for Acceptance in that it had to complete the character arcs started for Control and the biologist without somehow cheapening the experience of the previous two novels. VanderMeer manages to succeed at this for the most part however Acceptance, the longest novel in the series, meanders a bit more than either of the other two novels. Whereas Annihilation and Authority focus on the sense of dread more so than plot Acceptance flips the tables offering the most structured plot of the series. There was no way I was going to satisfied with whatever explanation for Area X VanderMeer was going set forth so it set forth. For what it’s worth Acceptance is a strong novel that once again offers a fascinating character in the Lighthouse keeper and manages to tell round out the exploration of the pasts of some of the novel’s other characters. VanderMeer does an admirable job trying to balance offering some explanation about Area X while still leaving things a bit mysterious. The story doesn’t quite work for me. The structure is a bit too normal compared to either of the first two novels and the resulting tonal shift was a bit too abrupt for me. Acceptance doesn’t spoil the effect of rest of the Southern Reach Trilogy but it doesn’t quite feels a little too different.

Regardless of how I felt about Acceptance the Southern Reach Trilogy is an engaging series that is a prime example of the fusion of fantasy, horror, and science fiction that typifies the New Weird. VanderMeer’s masterful handling of tone in both Annihilation and Authority makes them two of the best book books I’ve read in years. This is the type of fiction that sticks with you and casually, perhaps almost imperceptibly, manages to warp the way you engage with the world around you.

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