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Book Review

A Lonely Trip Through the Southern Reach

Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff VanderMeer

Contains: Gender Concept, Language, Sexual Themes, Substance Use, Violence
Recommended age: 18+
Fiction, Sci-fi

My very first impression, from the first page of Annihilation, book one of The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, was not far from my last thoughts on the series. What insanity have I just stumbled into? Every reveal seems to bring along numerous other mind-bending doubts or questions about the world Vandermeer has created. The story opens with a group of nameless female explorers beginning their expedition into “Area X”, a mysterious portion of the ordinary world that has somehow, inexplicably become subject to laws all its own. Its boundaries, although we are told they exist, are undefined. Its history is reported in flashbacks from training and snippets of conversation between the narrator, “the biologist,” and the remaining three women of the team: a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist. No names are given by explicit design of The Southern Reach, a faceless organization that has been sending in teams to plumb the depths of this eerily familiar yet menacing stretch of coast line. Time is disjointed in both “worlds” as the narration, taken from the biologist’s journal, records memories, recent  training, and vague references to a long (but how long?) history of previous missions.

It should be no surprise that things start to go wrong very quickly. In fact, things are going wrong from the first words of the book. Something was where it should not be. This problem seems to overarch every conflict in the series – someone or something that should not be there. Area X seems to communicate in a variety of ways that these explorers should not be there. Repeatedly these explorers stumble across clues, remnants, and even each other where they seem not to belong. However (and I will not give a spoiler here), in one of the most interesting twists of the story, it becomes clear that a central element to the entire plot is a love story.  

And so the problems continue in book two, Authority. Now we take a look at events, disjointed as they are, from the viewpoint of a character we know first as “Control”, a nickname that seems as out-of-place in this chaotic pair of worlds as any could be. Control is an operative sent in by some shrouded government powers – including his own mother – to run damage control as the appointed director of the now-rudderless Southern Reach. The former director has gone missing since the last mission, a failure even by Southern Reach standards, and the formerly faceless organization takes on grotesque form as Control delves into the characters, methodology, and physical structure that are The Southern Reach. In a reversal of the first book, the events are taking place in the “regular” world outside of Area X with the exception of anecdotes and other evidence from former survivors of missions. However, nothing is settled – the out-of-place is normal. Seeds of doubt are planted in every interaction and it is impossible to trust anyone. Even Control himself seems ill-suited to his task as we learn more about the baggage he brings with him. The acting director makes every effort to prevent his settling in as she sees him as coming in to undo the work of the former director to whom she was a devoted confidante. The various other characters seem like warped caricatures.

All but one: Ghost Bird. She is a mysterious survivor of the previous mission who was picked up by The Southern Reach and is at Control’s disposal for interrogation. Control seems to be the only person to notice that something about her is different from any previous survivors. As he talks with her, he gets glimpses into her as well as into Area X. He can not help but sense, with significant concern sometimes, that he senses a bond between the two of them. Although the love story may be altered, we again get a sense of this relationship taking a central role. Control is moved by Ghost Bird, more than any concern for his past, family relations, or duty to solve the mystery of Area X.

Acceptance begins with Ghost Bird and Control working their way down the coastline of Area X toward the landmarks they know of. This book, however, becomes more puzzling in its narration, again serving the author’s purpose of disjointing our grasp on time. Besides getting the view of Ghost Bird and Control, some of the story is told by the Director while she is still in charge of Southern Reach. We learn much about the warped inner workings of The Southern Reach as well as insight into her unexpected connection to Area X. The third narrator is the lighthouse keeper, a character we learn existed from photographs and research mentioned in the first two books. His story spans the years preceding the “beginning” of Area X and describes some of the strange events, perhaps instigated by the Seance & Science Brigade (S&SB) which explain his presence in “the Crawler” as seen in the earlier books.

With regard to content, Annihilation is the cleanest of the trilogy. There are four uses of the f-word: three as adjectives in heated conversation but one used crudely as a verb describing a disturbing sexual encounter. The biologist also makes passing, non-graphic, reference to earlier sexual activity. There is one comment about people not “identifying” as male or female that seems so tacked-on that I wonder if it could have been thrown in by an eager editor. Violence is present at various points as well as disturbing science fiction “images”. Authority becomes more problematic as more crude, occasionally graphic, sexual references are made by Control. Furthermore, references are made to homosexuality (although not activity). The last book, Acceptance, takes things up a notch by having substantial narration given by a homosexual character and his lover. We encounter them first in bed, get an explanation of how they met, and have several other scenes of the two in sexual situations.

This trilogy certainly lives up to its billing as always challenging the reader’s assumptions. (NB: The recent film version of the series starring Natalie Portman – a film I would rate 0 stars – unsuccessfully morphs the science fiction of the novels into a more traditional horror film format.) It should not be surprising, based on the title, that there is a nihilistic quality to this story. Every physical reality is questioned, relations are questioned, and the fundamental sense of community – that factor that gives hope to the characters in nearly every apocalyptic story – is lost. In fact, hope is the most clear casualty in this series. If Vandermeer had left us only with Annihilation, I would have given it 3.5 stars in part because of its unresolved conclusion that gives a faint glimmer of hope. So many questions are left unanswered at the end of Acceptance that the reader gains little from the “resolution” it offers and hope, or any sense of true religious transcendence, is drained. My greatest regret to this possible solution would be to miss meeting Control, a nuanced and interesting character whom I found compelling as he found a path through the labyrinthine physical and psychological barriers of the story. I might even recommend Authority, with caveats about the content, because of the glimpses one gets of hope. However, because Acceptance is so insufficient in resolving the story – in fact, it muddies any clarity you might have had through the first two books – I can not recommend the series as a whole.

Discussion Questions

  1. Each of the characters exists mostly in isolation. Describe the apparent effects of this. What are their different types of isolation? Is it self-imposed?
  2. What exceptions to this isolation occur? What seem to be the effects in these occasions? Are these effects always for the good?
  3. Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist? Isolation? The Crawler? Area X?
  4. Is any true climax reached thus producing a resolution?
  5. The characters in these books struggle with hope. Is there a difference between resignation and acceptance?

About the Reviewer

Peter Vitz

Art, Natural History
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