September 26, 2014
Genre is usually the least interesting way to describe a book. The novels we consider timeless – and I’m talking Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter and Beloved here, people – always defy our rigid categories in exciting and unexpected ways. The volumes that make up Jeff VanderMeer’s thrilling Southern Reach trilogy employ elements of different genres, such as science fiction and the espionage thriller and even horror. In VanderMeer’s hands, those ingredients combine to form some inventive and remarkable fiction.
The first volume, Annihilation, appeared in February, and its sequel, Authority, turned up in the spring. Now, with the publication of the final volume, Acceptance, we have the conclusion of an incredible series. A secretive government program known as the Southern Reach has assumed responsibility for exploring and researching a mysterious geographical – or is that temporal? – zone known as Area X.:
Area X, before the ill-defined Event that locked it behind the border thirty years ago and made it subject to so many inexplicable occurrences, had been part of a wilderness that lay adjacent to a military base.
The scientists know very little about this place, and we readers know even less. VanderMeer does a masterful job of allowing us to figure things out on our own. The region has fallen prey to some alternation by an unknown force, perhaps a natural disaster or alien occupation. The official, public story is that some sort of accident at the nearby military base has rendered the land unlivable:
The government’s version of events emphasized a localized environmental catastrophe stemming from experimental military research. This story leaked into the public sphere over a period of several months so that, like the proverbial frog in a hot pot, people found the news entering their consciousness gradually as part of the general daily noise of media oversaturation about ongoing ecological devastation.
Whatever caused the change, the laws of nature seem to work differently inside Area X. Teams have been sent in to study the area, but those that manage to return are transformed in strange mental, emotional, and perhaps physical ways. Our story begins with what is thought to be the 12th expedition into the once-normal coastal region.
Annihilation features a team of scientists known only by their roles, such as anthropologist or psychologist. Our narrator is the biologist, whose personal connection with a member of the previous, doomed expedition complicates matters even further:
We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny. In unusual situations there can be a comfort in the presence of even someone you think might be your enemy. Now we had come close to the edges of something unprecedented, and less than a week into our mission we had lost not just the linguist at the border but our anthropologist and our psychologist.
The next volume, Acceptance, doesn’t follow the linear trajectory of the plot but picks up the story of a man known as Control back at the Southern Reach. Acceptance takes another unexpected peripatetic turn, and it works wonderfully. Any further plot summary risks trespassing into the realm of spoilers. Suffice it to say there are plenty of surprises waiting and some positively baffling moments. I mean that in the very best way.
The trilogy works a little bit like a mystery. We move rapidly through its pages with the expectation of some great revelation at the end. The most impressive thing about this series, however, is the manner in which VanderMeer presents – and withholds – information we seek. We get answers to our questions, but those answers only make things more complicated. The more we learn, the more there is to know. By the time the final page flips over, much too soon, we might actually know less than when we started.
When “the mind expects a certain range of possibilities,” the biologist tells us in Annihilation, “any explanation that falls outside of that expectation can surprise.” VanderMeer’s series works the same way. It expands the range of narrative possibilities. In splicing the DNA of other genres into a literary novel of ideas, Annihilation and Authority and Acceptance join some of our most indelible books in asking us to rethink what we consider “literary” fiction. The Southern Reach trilogy is derived from an intensely febrile – and, I dare say, genius – imagination. It also happens to be great fun to read.