The Book We're Talking About: The Southern Reach Trilogy By Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff VanderMeer
FSG Originals, $15.00
Final installment, Acceptance, publishes September 2, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
is the final installment in Jeff VanderMeer's gripping The Southern Reach trilogy, a series that takes risks not only with its nontraditional science-fiction story arc, but also with its publishing model: All three books came out this year. On its surface the choice to release the novels in quick succession is a gimmicky, desparate response to Netflix's binge-watching model -- as consumers of culture, we seem to be growing less patient -- but in this case, it makes sense. Each of the stories is just distinct enough to warrant its own cover, but none are packed with the sort of intricate subplots that can benefit from the sort of fan analysis that downtime between release dates can foster (“Who will die next?” “Will Cersei and Jaime work things out?”). While he’s penned a few rich, deeply explored characters, VanderMeer’s greater achievement with this trilogy is developing a logic problem that can serve as both a platform for philosophical debate, and an exploration of the travails of novel-writing. In Annihilation, a crew of workers who have eschewed their given names, replacing them with their job titles –- psychologist, biologist, linguist, surveyor and anthropologist -– have embarked on what they believe to be the twelfth expedition to a peculiar, expanding and deadly landscape called Area X. Their aim is to map and record, well aware that past attempts to do so have turned up few, if any, survivors. Our narrator, the biologist, who seems to have been selected for her irreverence and aloofness, introduces us immediately to a “topographical anomaly,” a tunnel that seems inexplicably alive, with Biblical-sounding words scrawled across its walls.

The words, too, seem to be composed of living organisms, and after approaching them to get a closer read, the biologist becomes infected with the unknown contaminant.

During the rest of her journey towards an ominous lighthouse, she feels herself changing from within, and becomes possessed by a sudden, burning energy -- which she likens to a burning light -- causing the others to lose trust in her, perhaps rightfully so. Before she reaches her destination, the rest of her crew is picked off one by one, in increasingly tense scenes. When she reaches the lighthouse, she finds a roomful of journals, much like the one she was instructed to keep, and a photo of a scruffy, proud lighthouse keeper.

An unexplained compulsion leads her back to the scrawl-covered tunnel. As she descends into its narrowing depths, she encounters a kaleidoscopic light, which seems to be emitting from a creature that loosely resembles the lighthouse keeper. It is presumed that the creature -- The Crawler -- is responsible for the darkly poetic verse, as well as the biologist’s altered state.

VanderMeer might be at his strongest in the first installment, which could be taken as an allegory for reading fiction: a strange world that exists within our own, but entirely apart from it, and has the ability to alter its visitors entirely. This thread is carried across the next two novels -- Authority and Acceptance -- but through the added lenses of additional characters, including the apprehensive director of Southern Reach, the agency responsible for the Area X explorations. Like the crew of the twelfth expedition, John Rodriguez gives up his name in place of an epithet: Control. His survey of the organization he’s recently been put in charge of follows the same slowly tensing trajectory as the biologist’s bizarre romp through Area X, and in the final book, the two team up to return to the strange land for a final mission. Their journey is interspersed with pleasant chapters revealing the downfall of the proud lighthouse keeper -- who was once a preacher, and who is responsible for the Biblical text from which Area X seems to emanate -- and the Southern Reach’s brave director, who grew up on the land it now occupies.

The culmination of the series is satisfying only if you’re comfortable being left with open-ended thought experiments, which VanderMeer has deftly arranged and carried along on the shoulders of mostly intriguing (if sometimes sloppily-sketched -– the director of a major, if run-down, government organization aimed to understand a threatening landscape inexplicably doesn't know what "terroir" means, and mistakes the word for "terror”) characters.

For those who prefer to see science and faith as intertwined rather than opposed, the series is a gripping means of uncovering the bright places where the two disciplines intersect.

What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: "Details from the biologist’s past -- she was a loner who would rather observe a tide pool than participate in her marriage -- fill out the metafictional allegory, but without convincingly establishing the biologist’s motivations for her risky behavior, motivations that might have made “Annihilation” not just intriguing but affecting."

Kirkus: "We leave knowing more about Area X than we started; we may not understand it any better, but we leave transformed, as do all travelers to that uncanny place."

Who wrote it?
Jeff VanderMeer has been a finalist for the Hugo Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. His work has been classified as a part of the New Weird genre, which combines speculative fiction and horror.

Who will read it?
Readers of soft science fiction, apocalyptic stories and biopunk. Those interested in fiction that combines descriptions of the natural world with more philosophical ruminations.

Opening lines:
"The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse."

Notable passage:
"Writing, for me, is like trying to restart an engine that has rested for years, silent and rusting, in an empty lot -- choked with water and first, infiltrated by ants and spiders and cockroaches. Vines and weeds shoved into it and sprouting out of it. A kind of coughing splutter, an eruption of leaves and dust a voice that sounds a little like mine but is not the same as it was before; I use my actual voice rarely enough."

Rating, out of ten:
8. VanderMeer's trilogy is set amid a puzzling terrain, the specificities of which matter little relative to the lives of all venture there. The series sometimes reads like a logic problem, a style which can come across as sterile, but which makes the books impossible to put down.

Further reading:
Jeff VanderMeer rounded up a list of books that inspired the Southern Reach trilogy here.