It’s been a while since I’ve written a review, and to be honest, what I want to say about the Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer, isn’t really review-like. These books weren’t my favorite of all time or anything (they were solid 4* of 5*s), but they did strike at an interesting confluence of themes that I just want to talk about.
The first book, Annihilation, introduces us to the idea of Area X — a piece of ‘forgotten coast’ in the American South, where a weird force has created a barrier and also changed the relationship between humans and the natural world (or what passes for natural, in there) — and the Southern Reach, which has been set up to study it. This study has been going on for thirty years or more, with no results in sight — just an ever-lengthening list of the changed and the dead, due to the Southern Reach’s insistence on sending ‘expeditions’ regularly into Area X.
This premise struck my fancy immediately, because I am a great fan of the folks over at the SCP Foundation, who have created a fictional organization much like the Southern Reach — except vastly more effective. Even where the Foundation falls down in its attempts to Secure, Contain and Protect, it still has some idea of what it’s dealing with — and can tell when it’s outclassed. The whole trilogy made me feel a bit like I was reading an alternate-universe Foundation tale, which worked well for me.
The trilogy isn’t just about trying to explore this weirdly altered environment, though — or about it at all, really. It’s a lot more about how humans cope with change and the unknown, or worse, the unknowable. How some of us can’t handle events or entities that can’t be categorized, can’t be understood — and how others can let go of the need to define the world through words and explanations and sort of blend into the landscape. Become one with Area X. In that way, it reminded me of some of Stephen King’s work, where his protagonists grasp in vain at explanations for what they’re going through, and ultimately succumb to — or transcend — their flaws and failings. Not that they necessarily come out of their experience unbroken, but it brings some of their true substance to the fore, and judges them on that.
I was probably drawn into the first book best because I sympathize with the worldview of its protagonist, known only as ‘the biologist’. She’s one of those characters willing to blend in with the world, to suspend her human need to categorize in order to just experience where she is and what she’s observing. This makes her at once susceptible and immune to Area X’s insanity-inducing influence — it depends on whose point-of-view you consider. Area X never overpowers her, but it does radically change her as she experiences its wonders and horrors, and chips away just slightly at its mysteries. To the Southern Reach organization, she has become the enemy; to Area X, she has naturalized. There’s not much argument over which is right, which I appreciate. People just do what they feel they must.
The second book, Authority, picks up the story from within the Southern Reach, when a new director who likes to be called Control comes in to take over its crumbling affairs and experiments. His view is the opposite of the biologist’s, but he’s no less sympathetic, because he’s so adrift in his life. No one close to him, a life spent failing to live up to the spy histories of his mother and grandfather, and now this impossible task of bringing sense to an organization that is mad, that has been colonized by the madness it’s tried to study.
The third book, Acceptance, takes all the threads from the previous two books and braids them together, including past perspectives from people who were integral to both the creation of Area X and the behavior of the Southern Reach. And fortunately, in my opinion, there are no great confrontations or dramatic revelations, no real conclusion — because this isn’t a story about conclusion but metamorphosis, of continuation in another form, for good or ill. In this way, it’s a rather Lovecraftian story, not just because of some of the creatures lumbering along in the darkness but because the mysteries cannot be resolved; they’re too big, or too distant, too unreachable, and like the title of the book, cannot be known but only accepted.
Anyway, beyond waxing a bit philosophical about this, I very much enjoyed it. There were many little details that quite pleased me, like how the covers go from green to yellow to red, as if hinting at a threat level increase. These are not books to read if you need action, explanations and firm conclusions. To link another writer/book in here, there was a thoughtful and recursive tone to it that made me think of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — a lot of inferences and characters building upon the damaged framework that others had tried to build. Another sort of ghost story, love story, extradimensional weirdness story, just from a different angle.
These don’t get five stars because though I’ll think about them for a while, and I thought the characters were interesting and well-done for who they were, the story was…indeed like a meditation, or a weird smoky dream that wisps away when you wake up. There aren’t many events to cling to in memory, just this lingering atmosphere and sense of mystery, horror, wonder. I feel like…not that it was forgettable, but that I’ll forget it anyway, like fading watercolors. But maybe that’s how this sort of story is meant to be.