Book Series Review: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, The Southern Reach Trilogy, Jeff Vandermeer
Science Fiction: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, The Southern Reach Trilogy, Jeff Vandermeer
This trilogy is definitely not for every reader. For the right reader, though, this is one of the most interesting and complex trilogies I have read in a long time.
The Southern Reach Trilogy is set in what seems to be the Gulf Coast of the US, although far enough north that winter includes the chance of snow. The Southern Reach is the point position, the lab, for studying Area X. Many years ago, an invisible barrier dropped down along the coast, allowing entry in only one point. Everyone living within the barrier was lost to the rest of the world and presumably killed. Multiple expeditions were sent into Area X. Most of the personnel died. The few who returned were different. Some of them died soon thereafter.
Annihilation is told from the perspective of the biologist for expedition 12. (Many of the characters are not named in the book, but rather their titles are used.) Chapters jump in time and location, from her earlier life to her training for expedition 12 to the actual expedition. We learn that in some ways her preparation for this journey began decades before she had even heard of Area X. We also learn of her husband, who had been on the previous expedition into Area X and who returned but died of a rare cancer. As the details are revealed, the tension mounts and the questions pile up even as the answers prove elusive.
Authority is the story of John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” who becomes the director of Southern Reach after the return of the biologist. Three of the four members of the 12th expedition return, raising new questions, but only the biologist factors into the story. Control interviews her extensively, seeking answers not only to Area X, but also to why he was brought into the Southern Reach. We learn more about Area X, and also about the mysterious people at Central Command who are the real control behind the expeditions and the entire Southern Reach.
Finally, Acceptance shares multiple perspectives, jumping in time from before Area X was formed to various times up to the present, and moving from the biologist and Control to the previous director and the lighthouse keeper. Not every question is answered, but many are. Others are left to the reader’s imagination.
Many reviewers have described individual books or the trilogy as a whole as “creepy.” That’s not a bad word, but I think what they are getting at is the willingness of the author to leave questions unanswered. Area X could be a real place. The barrier could be a real barrier. It might be expanding. It might be an invasion point from another world or universe–or it might be none of those things. Some of those questions get answered in the course of the book. Some of them are not answered, at least not in full, or the answers are contradictory and two characters reach different conclusions. When the reader’s imagination is engaged this way, it makes for a more difficult read–but it also means that the reader’s own fears and conclusions are important to the books themselves. Someone else’s imagination might be creepy…but when my own fears get projected onto the work, the creepiness factor is increased significantly. Vandermeer is an expert at letting the reader imagine what the monsters and the actual perils may look like, and my own monsters scare me much more than the projections of someone else.
This is not the easiest read, and someone looking for a light and quick escapist SciFi/Fantasy series may not find it here. But if you are looking for something to give your mind and your imagination a bit of a workout, the Southern Reach Trilogy might be just the ticket.