I very rarely read trilogies these days, as there seem to be so many stories spun out to three volumes (or more) for purely commercial reasons. And I can’t remember the last time I read a series of books all the way through without pausing to read something else – it was probably over a decade ago. But I'm glad I made an exception for Jeff VanderMeer’s masterful Southern Reach trilogy, comprising of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance.
I'm talking about all three books here, so SPOILERS.
These trilogy centres around Area X, a mysterious wilderness that has been quarantined behind an intangible border after what has been described to the world as an environmental disaster, although Area X is in fact too clean, impossibly free from traces of human contamination or pollutants. The Southern Reach agency are responsible for trying to understand Area X, which they primarily do by sending expeditions across the border. The expeditions reveal little about Area X, often because those who return seem... different. Diminished, lacking even the memory of how they got back. The first book, Annihilation, tells the story of one such expedition to Area X, the members of which are just described by their functions – The Psychologist, The Biologist etc. Despite appearing to be just a natural wilderness, there's plenty of strangeness in Area X: modern technology doesn't work consistently, there’s a howling thing in the reeds, and a ‘topographical anomaly’ they decide to explore… It also becomes clear that the Southern Reach agency is almost as opaque and sinister as Area X itself, and this is taken up as the main thread of the second book, Authority which tells of a new director of the Southern Reach. Authority takes place almost entirely in the offices of the agency (although Area X does intrude in the form of notes by the previous director, and interviews with a returnee from the expedition from the first book…. and in other ways). This was probably my favourite book in the series, with the uncanny story set off against John Le Carre style intrigue and mixed motivations.
The third volume brings together characters and events from the first two books, as well as adding some back-story about people who lived in Area X before it changed. There are answers and some neat character arc summations, but suffice to say Area X remains almost as much as an enigma at the end of the trilogy as at the start. One of the central ideas of these books is how little we can know or understand about the truly alien. And that could be alien, capital W genre Weirdness… or simply the weirdness of the natural world around us, which we can’t comprehend even as we destroy it. There’s a strong environmental thread running through these books; too often in fiction this is clumsily handled and it’s to VanderMeer’s credit that here it emerges seamlessly from the narrative and characters. Aside from anything else, it’s nice to read some genre fiction so engaged with the natural world; these books have some wonderfully evocative descriptions of landscapes, the sea, birds and plant-life. VanderMeer’s prose manages to be both taut and concrete whilst building the dream-like, paranoid atmosphere of Area X and the Southern Reach. Some readers may not like at the lack of clear answers, at the nameless characters sometimes as opaque as the mystery they are investigating. But for those looking for an lyrical and unique blend of science-fiction, spy-thriller, and uncanniness would be well advised to make the journey to the Southern Reach and Area X forthwith...