I’m not entirely sure why it took me three years to read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. One of his earlier novels, Finch, is on a very short list of “best books I’ve ever read.” I suspect that I simply read the name “Southern Reach” and it somehow evoked images of the Southern United States in a weird way that didn’t appeal to me, and I just never got around to looking at the books. Until, that is, I read the first description of the upcoming movie version of the first book, which instantly intrigued me. Over the course of about 5 days, I read all three books of the trilogy. They’re that good.
It is hard to find the right words to describe these novels. Bewildering, intricate, confusing, surreal, thoughtful, haunting, poetic, horrific, terrifying, beautiful? It is all these things, and more.
The trilogy is centered upon an area of an evidently uninhabited and wild coastal area known only as Area X, which became isolated from the rest of the world some 30 years earlier due to an “event” whose nature is not understood. Since that time, a government organization known as the Southern Reach has been studying Area X, trying to understand its nature, its purpose, and whether it is a threat. They have been sending expeditions into the region for years, and those expeditions have more often than not come to unexplained or horrifying fates.
Annihilation, the first of the trilogy, is a first-person narrative of the twelfth expedition into Area X, told from the point of view of an expedition member initially known only as “the biologist.” The very use of personal names in Area X is apparently dangerous, so the team members are known only through their professions: biologist, anthropologist, psychologist, and surveyor. The team must be hypnotized in order to pass through the only portal through the mysterious barrier that surrounds the area. Once inside, things seem at first to be quite ordinary. However, it does not take long for the team to experience unsettling and inexplicable things: living writing on the walls of a structure that should not be, animals that do not seem to be quite animals, the sound of something unknown wailing in the swamp. The expedition members hold their own secrets, as well, which have a corrosive influence on their cooperation and mission. As the novel unfolds, the health and sanity of the team collapses as they make their way to a fate that seems inevitable.
Authority is set in the aftermath of the twelfth expedition, and is told from the point of view of the new head of the Southern Reach, a man who goes by the name Control. Through Control’s eyes, new to the enigma of Area X, we learn much more about its history and mystery, while at the same time watching Control attempt to survive the politics of the Reach and solve the “puzzle” of Area X himself, something his predecessor failed to do.
By the end of Authority, however, things have gone catastrophically — perhaps apocalyptically — wrong, and in Acceptance we see events unfold in the past and the present through a number of characters: the biologist and Control, the psychologist of the twelfth expedition, and a man who lived in Area X before it underwent its transformation. Can humanity stop the force or forces behind Area X from accomplishing their goal? And what is their goal? And should it be stopped at all?
I tend to view the books as progressing, in a sense, as the evolution of a very complex jigsaw puzzle. The first book, which plays out very much as a horror novel, gives us a small handful of pieces that seem to be utterly unrelated to each other. The second book, conversely, seems to throw an overwhelming number of pieces at us at once, giving us too much information to process. The third book then puts some of the puzzle together for us, at the same time revealing that there is certainly more of it than we can see.
One should not expect easy answers from the Southern Reach trilogy or, in many cases, answers at all. It appears that a large theme of the entire series is the idea that there are limits to what we can understand, and that some things may be so alien to us as to be unknowable. I got a strong sense of postmodernism in the story, in that our ideas of reality are unsuited to solving the problem of Area X.
This is not to say that there are no answers to be had, and that the story is incomprehensible. There is a clearly a method to Jeff VanderMeer’s madness: the books are saturated with ideas, and hints of the story behind Area X. A reader should pay attention and think about the implications of every bizarre occurrence, every strange theory that a character voices; not all of them are equally significant, but they all provide interesting, often profound, things to ponder. This is a book series that rewards careful, and multiple, readings.
If you don’t pay close enough attention, be prepared: the final book ends abruptly, and will likely leave you baffled and haunted. I am reminded somewhat, in a good way, of the ending of the classic 1967 television series The Prisoner. That 17-episode series ended almost completely in allegory, leaving viewers outraged that they were given no definite answers to questions that had plagued them through the show. Southern Reach doesn’t end only in symbolism — or does it? I’m still not sure — but it does leave you with a bewildered feeling.
If you’re like me, and you needed a little help understanding some of what was going on throughout the trilogy, this Goodreads discussion page (spoilers, obviously) can fill in some of the blanks wonderfully. I was impressed not only with the insightful comments of some of the readers, but also with the cleverness of VanderMeer; on reflection, you come to realize how almost every sentence is fraught with meaning.
I was reminded of a few other pieces of literature while reading the Southern Reach. One is the novella Needing Ghosts, by my favorite horror author Ramsey Campbell. That story slowly chips away at your sense of confidence in reality and your perception of it; it ranks as one of the only stories that left me feeling almost hysterical when I finished it. (Now I can add Acceptance to that very short list.) The similarities are not simply superficial: both authors are masters as instilling a sense of dread in their readers, and both appear to take almost obsessive care in the crafting of their stories and the words that they use.
The other novel that the Southern Reach reminded me of is the classic Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys. Roadside Picnic also features a forbidden region of the Earth, created by an “event,” a region which is filled with dangers inconceivable and powers unknowable. In Roadside Picnic, the “Zones” are created by aliens making a pit-stop; in the Southern Reach, I wasn’t quite sure throughout the trilogy whether I was even reading a science fiction story for most of its length! (This is, again, to VanderMeer’s credit, and goes back again to the idea of unknowable and incomprehensible forces.)
I could perhaps go on speculating about the ideas and meanings of the Southern Reach trilogy for another 1000 words, but I am not sure if I understand it well enough to do it proper justice! It is a haunting, often horrifying, story filled with vivid images and thought-provoking ideas, and it is almost certainly unlike anything you’ve read before. Highly recommended.