Book Review: Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

AnnihilationJeff Vandermeer’s work is often connected with the New Weird. This genre is difficult to define, but it typically refers to works that rely on a plot and setting that blend a disproportional amount of the unfamiliar with the familiar. Even though the Southern Reach Trilogy is grounded in the real world (taking place on the gulf coast near Florida?) and its characters are human, the fantastic elements of the story evoke many of the same emotions that are characteristic of weird fiction. For much of the narrative, the characters are on a quest of discovery while combating feelings of isolationism and dread.

In the first novel, Annihilation, Vandermeer refrains from using character names, referring to individuals by their professions. The main character, who is simply called the Biologist, is sent into the mysterious and alienating Area X with three other scientists to discover the secrets of this lush and otherworldly habitat. The scientists soon discover that they can’t even protect their own minds from the strange horrors that await them.

AuthorityThe second novel, Authority, progresses with a new interim director in charge of the investigations named Control. He is a drifter, hopping from one job to the next, supposedly skilled at fixing messy situations. Area X presents a formidable challenge for him and the new director finds that he has anything but control over the situation. Where book one takes place deep in the heart of Area X, book two takes place on the outskirts where central command believes it is safe from its alienating influences. It doesn’t take long for sound minds to break and we learn that the boundaries of Area X are not only blurry, but also growing.

Annihilation is a quick-paced thriller, which is followed up by a slower-paced, but more introspective novel in Authority. Annihilation leaves the reader questioning and wanting for more and Authority answers many questions, but leaves the overall mystery of Area X unresolved.

So that brings us to the final book in the trilogy — Acceptance. I know there are many people reading this review to find out if this is a series that wraps up nicely or if it is a meandering story with no gratifying resolution (like the TV series, Lost, for example). In short, this will depend on the reader. Part of the appeal of weird fiction is the abstractness of the setting and to make this series into an formulaic whodunnit with a Scooby Doo ending would be a mistake (and we all know Vandermeer is too smart for that). But I will tell you this — the Southern Reach Trilogy is a complete and satisfying story, appealing to those who are willing to lurk in a strange milieu to catch glimpses of the secrets that lie within. The trilogy is not what I would classify as horror, but there is a lingering sense of dread that flows throughout the narrative

acceptanceAcceptance is the culmination of the series, giving us more information on what happened to the Biologist and bringing Control deeper into the confines of Area X. It also bookends the first two novels, telling viewpoints of the lighthouse keeper and the former director before the events of book one, and also continuing the story that ended in book two through the eyes of Control.

The series as a whole is well-plotted and cleverly crafted. In the first book, we are deep in the trenches, but are not given names of the characters. In the second book, we take a broader view and are given richer characters with the third-person viewpoint. In the final book, Vandermeer dabbles with the second-person in narrating the former director’s story line. We progress through these novels not only in our understanding of Area X, but also in the way we read. It becomes more personal. It becomes more real. And with that, the feeling of dread also grows.

Vandermeer is successful in writing a strange, yet invigorating trilogy. While I don’t think it necessarily appeals to a broad reader base, it is certainly one of my reading highlights of the year. In addition to the curiosity it evokes and the well-crafted plot, I found the story to be clever and engaging. For those who are willing to take a step into a strange setting and explore the curiosities behind Area X, the Southern Reach Trilogy will be a rewarding read.

peter 100x100Peter Snede – AISFP Contributor
Peter is a husband, father of twin boys, and an engineer who grew up on a steady diet of Narnia and Dragonlance books. When he’s not working, wrestling his toddlers, or writing fiction, he often can be found blogging about books or on Twitter.

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