The Southern Reach Trilogy
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Annihilation / Book 2: Authority / Book 3: Acceptance
This novel just won the 2014 Nebula. I'm not sure why the entire trilogy was not nominated (it was for the Locus Awards, and more recently for World Fantasy). All three were released in paperback originals by September of last year, with a hardcover collection appearing in November, well within the time-frame for eligibility. Perhaps the second and third books are not as good as the first, but I'll know shortly since I've just ordered them. I'm pretty sure this was the first I had read by VanderMeer, but it definitely won't be the last. Annihilation is very good and I look forward to continuing with this story, but I didn't want to wait on this review. I'll probably read something else while waiting for the sequels to arrive, but I'll update this page as soon as possible.
It is too soon to say if this is science fiction or supernatural horror. It could be either, or both. The plot revolves around four women assigned to the twelfth expedition to explore Area X. We aren't told any of their names, only their occupations. The nominal leader of the group is the psychologist, with the other members being the surveyor, the anthropologist and the biologist. The latter is the first person narrator, although I don't know yet if her story continues in the sequels or if the focus shifts to someone else or to a thirteenth expedition. I had seen negative reviews of this on Amazon (I need to stop paying attention to those), but I think most of that was due to the uncertainty of what is going on. The members of the expedition are given some information about the previous attempts at exploring the area, but they later suspect that information was limited and quite possibly fabricated for some unknown reason. The biologist's husband had been a member of the eleventh expedition. He had returned unexpectedly and seemingly disoriented. He died of cancer (?) six months later, but he never revealed what he had experienced. Each expedition member was supposed to record their observations in a journal, but those journals were not shared with subsequent expeditions, they were only shown video inteviews with returnees. Except quite a few never returned, alive at least.
I have many questions myself, but that doesn't hinder my enjoyment of the writing. VanderMeer has been classified as part of the "New Weird," with the plot of this book reminiscent of Poe, Lovecraft or Manly Wade Wellman. Some readers (including myself) might be reminded of TV shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, and most definitely Lost. One question I have is whether Area X is designated as such in the sense of "X marks the spot," or rather it being the Roman numeral for Ten. Is it possible there are other areas, I - IX, somewhere else in the world? In addition to none of the characters being identified by name, we are also not told where Area X is, other than in the "southern" region of the country. The story was inspired by the author's hikes in northern Florida, so it could be there, or it could be the southern region of any other country. Wherever it is, it has been cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible border, and there has been only one (so far) "portal" discovered. The Southern Reach is the group that organizes the expeditions, but we don't know if they are a private corporation or part of government or military. The phenomena that each mission (and it is likely there have been more than just twelve) experiences could be the result of an alien infestation, or it could be nature run amok. All of this uncertainty does not alter the impact of the prose. It is mesmerizing, haunting, chill-inducing.
If this was a movie or TV show, the end reveal would probably be that everything is just a dream or hallucination, but I suspect that is not where it's going. If the second book continues the biologist's story, it is possible her fate might match those of previous expeditions, or maybe she will be the one to get to the ultimate answer. She already suspects that the "man" who returned to her was not actually her husband, and that he (whether in body or just in spirit) still resides in Area X. Even if she does learn the secrets, it is likely she will also be trapped there forever. Another question I have is why wasn't this nominated for a Hugo? I have read (or at least attempted) all of those nominees, and Annihilation is better than any of them.
The biologist does figure into the second book but she is no longer the narrator. The style switches to third person, and the focal character is a man whom we later learn is John Rodriguez, but for most of the book he is known simply as Control. He is the new director of Southern Reach. The psychologist, the twelfth expedition leader who had not returned, had also been the previous director. Control has to contend with a disgruntled assistant director, who not only had expected to ascend to the top position eventually, she is also convinced that her director is still alive and resents the usurper. The rest of the staff seems more prone to obfuscation than revelation. Control is upset that the anthropologist and the surveyor (both of whom I had assumed to have died on the expedition) have been moved to another location before he has a chance to interview them. I thought the biologist was going to stay in Area X and look for her husband, but she has also returned but is uncooperative.
While the first book was more dream-like horror, the second is closer to a mystery/spy thriller. It seems to be confirmed that the Southern Reach is a government project, with both military guards and agents (including Control) assigned by "Central." The most logical assumption would be the C.I.A., but it could be some other, fictitious intelligence group. Control's mother is also an agent, and she is the one who recommended he take the position. His orders come from someone known only as The Voice, heard through a scrambled phone connection. Control sifts through the mass of objects and information collected by his predecessor, much of which confuses him. One is a plant that had been locked in a desk drawer, which other staff members said puzzled the director because it could not be killed. Whitby, one of the SR scientists, theorizes Area X is an incursion from a parallel universe, while another, Cheney, confides to Control that the psychologist had made a solitary trip into Area X prior to the twelfth expedition. Even when the assistant director admits she was aware of that she claims she doesn't know any specifics. Everyone, including Control, lies about something, or at least withholds information.
Authority is just as good as Annhilation, and yet the two words that best describe it are confusing and frustrating. Those would usually be negative traits, but not necessarily this time. I'd compare it to the confusion of a Gene Wolfe novel or a David Lynch film, both of which I generally love. On numerous occasions things are hinted at but not revealed, or at least not completely. Some may be clues, or they may be misdirection. Take the psychologist's cell phone for instance. It was found in the same drawer as the mysterious plant, Control is sure he has put it back in the desk, but later finds it in his briefcase when he gets to his car. He later throws it away into the shrubbery in his back yard, only to find it placed on his doorstep the next day, supposedly by his landlady who left a note saying the yard man had found it. Not once did Control say anything about looking on the phone, for a call log or voice mails, or pictures or other information. The phone might have been a clue, so why was it never examined, and if it wasn't a clue, why mention it so often? A few things are revealed, one being the identity of the Voice, the other a girl in a photo. I had guesses for both of them, was correct about one, but won't say which. It is also confirmed that there have been many more expeditions than officially reported.
I'm still not sure where Area X is. If it's supposed to be northern Florida there are two descriptions that seem to contradict each other, or else I misread it. One says it extends several miles both east and west of the one portal through the invisible border, indicating probably the Florida panhandle, maybe the Forgotten Coast. Later, an island located north of the area is mentioned. The "biologist" claims she is not the biologist, but maybe something like what she feared her husband was when he returned from the eleventh expedition. Something in Area X might be creating duplicates, and if so, for what purpose, and what happens to the humans trapped there? There's another book to go, so maybe all questions will be addressed. Even if only half are answered I will probably still give it my recommendation. Of course, it's possible that VanderMeer has already given all the clues and I'm just not smart enough to have recognized them yet.
Not all of the answers are revealed, maybe none with any certainty. There will be some readers willing to accept a certain hypothesis (alien incursion), others will lean toward an alternative (nature transformed and fighting back). I'm not making any commitment without re-reading, but I'm not convinced that's a strike against the trilogy. Sometimes following interesting characters in fascinating situations is enough, even with many questions left to ponder at the end. Especially when the adventure is rendered in such eloquent prose. Remember that I referenced Lost above? If you enjoyed that show, even with all its craziness, dropped plot threads and what I consider an inconclusive ending, you might be the type to appreciate these books. VanderMeer did accomplish two remarkable things; completely changing my opinion of one character, and making the most sympathetic someone who isn't even human (or is she?).
The majority of the final book is written in third person, with specific chapters that are a strange hybrid of first and second. The story of the psychologist, the former director of Southern Reach and the leader of the twelfth expedition, is told by her in flashbacks, although she refers to herself in second person. Other chapters follow the actions and thoughts of three other characters. Control and the "biologist" are together throughout the book but different chapters highlight each of them separately. The final main character is one who had just been briefly mentioned before, his story also told in flashbacks. Saul Evans was the lighthouse keeper more than thirty years prior to the events in the first book, up to the point of the creation of Area X. The lighthouse is one of the few human structures in the area still intact at the time of the twelfth expedition, and beyond. It is possible that he was the first person affected by whatever, or whomever, created the border that segregated the area from the rest of the world. In that earlier scenario, Saul befriends a precocious ten year old girl named Gloria. She is the girl in the photograph mentioned in my comments on Authority. Gloria leaves to spend some time with her father, her mother remaining, and shortly after that is when the border came down on Area X. When Gloria grew up and learned of the Area X phenomenon, she changed her name to Cynthia and also altered her background history as best she could. She feared her earlier experience in the area might dissuade SR from allowing her into the program. Gloria/Cynthia is the psychologist.
I haven't given too many other plot details before now. Anyone averse to spoilers might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs, but since most of what I'll say is rumination and speculation I don't think any of it will ruin the story, in fact I think it will be more intriguing than spoilery. That all of this occurs in a different dimension or timeline from our reality is revealed in what I'm sure was the only mention of a date in any of the three books, when Control learns of an experiment Southern Reach conducted sometime in "the mid-1990s." Another indication of some sort of dimensional warp is that time flows much faster inside Area X than without. There are several other places of interest inside Area X besides the lighthouse. The most mysterious is what SR calls the "topographical anomaly." During the twelfth expedition the psychologist calls it a tunnel, yet the biologist insists on calling it a tower. Did she have some insight the others didn't, could it be possible that it was a tower that had been inverted and then buried in the ground, perhaps a mirror of the lighthouse? Two or three different descriptions of the interior mention an increasingly bright light the further down one went. Could it be a tunnel (wormhole) toward Whitby's speculated alternate universe? At least two different people see what they identify as Saul Evans, although grotesquely deformed by whatever force created Area X. The psychologist encountered, and recognized, him on her earlier venture into Area X, although she didn't go alone, Whitby accompanied her. On the twelfth expedition, the biologist sees him in the tower, is sure he is a form of the man she saw in a photograph in the lighthouse, but she dubs him the "Crawler." It is during that encounter that the transformation of the biologist began.
As confusing and inconclusive as most of the story is, there's really only one part that I felt didn't make sense. It occurs at the end of the second book. Before Control is through interviewing the biologist she is removed from the SR facilities, yet she is able to escape. Control, being the intelligence agent he is, correctly guesses where she will run, and they meet again on the Northwest coast (Washington state? Vancouver?) where she had previously worked on an assignment in marine biology. The part that doesn't make sense is they jump into a dark whirlpool in a lagoon, and the next time they appear (in the third book) they are back in Area X. If she is indeed a copy of the original biologist, it could be speculated that she is therefore always connected to Area X no matter where she is. Then again, I'm not sure she is the copy and not the original. She does insist on being called Ghost Bird, which is a nickname given to the biologist by her husband. Later, they find a journal supposedly written by the biologist (the only part written in straight first-person), and witness another transformed creature they assume is the biologist. But maybe that was the copy, and the biologist is still herself no matter what she believes. If that is possible, then maybe the Crawler was the copy of Saul Evans, and the real lighthouse keeper had a different fate. Who knows? Maybe VanderMeer will reveal that in a prequel novella he has announced, which is supposed to be about the day before the border came down.
So, weird and creepy, confusing and inconclusive, yet still a great story. It's been about a week since I finished Acceptance and I'm still thinking about it, and will continue to think about it for days to come, and wonder if I should edit this page daily as I think of new things to say. There are quite a few things I haven't revealed yet, such as my opinion of the psychologist being the one that changed the most, and Ghost Bird being the most sympathetic. I could tell you some really strange stories about Whitby, about that experiment from the 90s, or two people from the Science and Sťance Brigade who were doing some weird experiments around the lighthouse prior to Area X. The psychologist later speculated that they were working under the direction of Central and that they might have been the catalyst for the transformation. How about when the psychologist (or a copy) returned to SR just as the border of Area X expanded and engulfed the SR facilities. It's possible it continued to expand and eventually encompassed the world, but the focus of the narrative shifted at that point to Control tracking Ghost Bird after she escaped. Once they were back in Area X they wouldn't have had an idea how far it's boundaries had spread. Oh, and that cell phone? It wasn't the psychologist's, it belonged to the only survivor of the first expedition, one James Lowry, now in charge of things at Central, although surely there were others above him. How could a man who had witnessed such horror send others back into that nightmare? That's just one more question not answered.
But I'm fine with that. I'm in acceptance mode. I loved all of it.
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