The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation was one of my favorite movies of last year, which made me curious about Jeff Vandermeer’s book series that inspired it. It has taken a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading the 2014 book series: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.

In a lot of ways reading Annihilation was a completely new experience, as the movie was only loosely based on the book. The setting and general outlines of the story are the same — a team of women scientists go to explore the mysterious region called Area X. The biologist on the team is the wife of man who was on a previous team, and he returned under strange circumstances. There’s a lighthouse. The psychologist who leads the team may have her own agenda. In both versions, the nature of Area X is never fully explained, and the ending leaves open a lot of possibilities. And that’s about it for the similarities. A lot of the specifics regarding what is happening in Area X and how the journey into the area unfolds are different. So I was continually kept off-kilter when reading, as is appropriate.

The second book, Authority, focuses on the Southern Reach, the organization that is in charge of investigating Area X. A man called only Control has taken over the Southern Reach, and he’s trying to get to the bottom of both Area X and the many failed expeditions into Area X. A lot of this book is about organizational politics, which is not nearly as exciting as a bizarre world where the rules of nature seem no longer to apply. Although I suppose any organization has its own set of rules that a new person has to figure out, and Control is trying to figure out the Southern Reach just as the scientists were trying to figure out Area X. I wanted proper weirdness, however, and it didn’t show up until past the halfway point of the book, when it got stranger and more exciting.

As for the final book, Acceptance, it’s all weird, all the time. This book takes place largely inside Area X, both  in the present and the past. We get to see into the lives of most of the major characters from the previous two books. In some cases, we’re following them through Area X as they try to understand the place. In other cases, we’re seeing that same area before the event that changed everything.

One of the things I liked about the series (and the movie) is its commitment to avoiding explanation. Lots of explanations are floated for why nature acts as it does in Area X. Indeed, even the nature of the anomalies isn’t always clear. Animals act strangely, people disappear, there are doubles, time operates differently. There are lots of things going on, and lots of possible reasons: It’s aliens, human interference, natural phenomena … something we’ll never know. At one point, the characters seem to converge on an explanation, but I didn’t find it convincing, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to.

Considering the three books together, I think the series may be less about the cataclysm that brought about Area X and more about people’s responses to it. That’s why we get a second book that devotes so much time to power plays and office schemes. Of course, that kind of thing will affect human response to any disaster, and it affects the Southern Reach. But this isn’t so simple as a parable about how dysfunctional organizations are a threat to humanity in the face of disaster. It takes a broader view to include other responses. Just waiting to see. Giving in. Exploring and understanding. Asking questions. Fighting. Whatever the threat, there’s no end to the possible reactions. And which one is best in this context is just as mysterious as any other question the books pose.

(Interestingly, I think the movie explores these same questions, just over a more compressed storyline.)

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4 Responses to The Southern Reach Trilogy

  1. Jeanne says:

    I was intrigued enough by Annihilation that I read the second and third books, but they didn’t improve my understanding or provide much additional pleasure.
    This spring I get to meet the author, as he’s the guest of honor at this year’s ICFA!

  2. I loved this series. I don’t think I got most of it, ha ha! But it was a crazy reading ride and I really enjoyed it. You did a great job writing about a series that’s really hard to write about.

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