Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Southern Reach Trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

This book is the first in a trilogy, one that centers on Area X. It's a mysterious, quarantined area that we don't know much about. Every so often, the government sends in an expedition, people of various professional backgrounds to scope out the land to report what's inside the territory. Unfortunately, almost all of the expeditions end badly, with everyone shooting each other or disappearing under unknown circumstances, reappearing in their homes several months later, and dying not long after.

Annihilation takes us on the twelfth expedition to Area X; there are participants this time, all women: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist. We never learn any of their names, and maybe that's part of the point. The biologist's connection to Area X is particularly interesting: her husband was a member of the previous expedition, the one where they all disappeared and showed up at home without an explanation before dying of a brief illness. She's become obsessed with the world her husband died for, so much that she volunteers to go in, too.

What she finds is in turns horrifying and fascinating. The book gets pretty fantastical pretty quickly, but the images that VanderMeer makes for us are beautiful and frightening all at once. I don't want to go into much detail because everything about this book is atmospheric: it's important to let the unease creep into your bones and fill you with discomfort exactly as the author wants.

My only criticism of the book is that it gets a bit trapped in itself toward the end. It's a short book--only about 175 pages--which is a perfect length to do the kind of narrative exploration that VanderMeer wants to do while his characters are doing a physical exploration of Area X. Nonetheless, the narrator kind of collapses in on herself toward the end and I struggled to follow along, but it's clearly an intentional choice and one that I applaud even if I couldn't understand it fully. I'm very much looking forward to books two and three.

My rating: 4.5/5

Volume 2 of the trilogy takes the focus out of Area X and into the organization, the Southern Reach. That's a misleading statement: of course the focus is still on Area X, but no longer is that our setting. We pick up where the first book left off, kind of. The biologist, the unnamed narrator of Annihilation, has returned from her expedition; unlike the other members, she isn't riddled with cancer, and she doesn't die.

Our focus dwells not on her, however--the main character is a man who refers to himself as Control. He's brought to the Southern Reach program to take over as a leader of the organization--the psychologist of Annihilation, we find out, was the previous director, and has disappeared after her expedition. Control is a man driven by a desire to know things: he arrives at the outpost and wants answers, about Area X and the people who are investigating it. What  makes him so compelling is how perfectly he balances between trying to be authoritative and being so helpless.

What impresses me the most about Authority is how scary VanderMeer can make Area X: Control knows almost nothing about the mysterious, otherworldly bubble of land, and the possibilities of it occupy his mind constantly and terrify him. The reason that so impresses me? We already know many details about Area X's interior from the first book in this trilogy--we shouldn't feel frightened by the unknown, because we technically already know. But that's a demonstration of how talented the author is: Control is scared, and so are we.

Where Annihilation was almost entirely about the biologist, Control brushes up against several different people in the Southern Reach, which gives the ending more weight. I found it difficult to concern myself with the outcomes of the other members of the expedition detailed in the first of the trilogy; I found myself far more invested in what has and will become of these characters. VanderMeer does a fantastic job of answering questions that trigger more questions, and it works to great effect in this book. Just like Book 1, this novel collapses on itself at the end. However, it does so much more elegantly and logically than the biologist's tale--there's a lot more to anchor the narrative in this volume. An all-around improvement on something I was already really enjoying.

My rating: 4.5/5

The final volume in the Southern Reach trilogy features a narrative structure that's different from its predecessors. Where they follow one character for the course of one book, this book provides us with four arcs, which take place in different time periods. There's a Control narrative, which picks up where Authority ends, as well as Ghost Bird's point of view, which runs at the same time as Control's. We also hear from the previous director of the program--her story starts before the trilogy and ends right before the events of Annihilation. The final thread is the earliest, and comes from the perspective of Saul Evans, the man who ran the lighthouse before Area X existed.

I found the constant switching between viewpoints to be exciting and rewarding. I've read a number of books that use this style with various levels of success: sometimes it works great, and the additional perspectives can add new dimensions of understanding, and in other cases, it's too jumbled (The Sound and the Fury stands out). Vandermeer (obviously) knows what he's doing, and I never once felt like this technique was a gimmick.

What's thrilling about Acceptance is that it answers our questions: the blurb promises us this much. Perhaps what we learn isn't presented very clearly, and I can't decide if I like that or not. Do I need to know every detail of the entire history of Area X and everyone it's touched? Part of me says yes, but part of me wants to resist the urge. I like the absence of certainty, the mystery that might creep into my brain when I'm not expecting it.

One of my favorite things about this last book in the trilogy is how much we learn about the director, a character who is built up so heavily in book 2 that I wanted to know so much about her. It was so satisfying to read her chapters, which are flavored beautifully with hints of paranoia. As an overall assessment of the trilogy, there is a lot of light paranoia bleeding through the characters, which is done so well. It's easy to write a paranoid character badly, but it's way more challenging to create someone whose paranoia fuels them but doesn't overpower them. The cast of characters for this series these novels are done so subtly that it's easy to forget how well they've been written.

So what is to be said of Acceptance? It answers your questions, but not all the way. It teases and tortures, but it highlights the perfect characterization that we've been getting all along: maybe we don't know all that there is to know about Area X, but I've had fun watching everyone fall apart in its wake.

My rating: 4.5/5

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