Brief Thoughts on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

I finished Acceptance (book three of the Southern Reach Trilogy) just a few hours ago. Minus what may be a short addendum focused on the Séance & Science Brigade, this is where we all leave Area X, for better or worse.

There is an emptiness that didn’t fully form in my mind until some point in this last novel. It was hinted at and driven towards all throughout, but the empty began to take a shape as I began to realize that there were to be no clear answers, that the novels were meant to drag us along but not show us the path. It takes a strong writer to be leave a reader fulfilled and moved despite having few, if any, explanations. This is common in Science Fiction and Horror, but here, there is no trick on the reader, no cheap vistas presented for the sake of wasting words. There is a point and there is a reality behind the story we’re given, we’re just not meant to see it.

Acceptance drives this home with layering of character experiences the first two novels teased us with. We get the format of personal notes from the biologist and Saul Evans as each descends into a different chaos and form. The reader is also drowned in stages by way of second-person narrative, within the head of the director as she struggles against losing her grip on her humanity and her life.

Area X is never truly understood by any one character; only by seeing the experiences of them all can we begin to grasp at the shape of this event/place. They pushed at the border, only to finally see the border react, and react again: they sought to trigger something, and they succeeded. But the few survivors are changed, as is the world. Yet, by seeing how the characters and the bunnies and the author and his readers prod, poke, and produce Area X, I can’t help but see one perspective of viewing this work as analogous to the act of writing and reading. Simply, more so than in most fiction, Area X and the world around it is a creation of the mind of the reader, not of the author.

I see dramatic changes, in almost every layer VanderMeer shows, grow in my mind to represent something that is so very foreign that I can’t help but think it’s perhaps the most realistic tale of alien contact I’ve ever read. Assuming that is even a shade of what happened in the story: that is what I chose to name the emptiness that the author and his characters only hint at. Other readers undoubtedly will come to different conclusions than I did. Even after writing the words ‘alien contact,’ I know that I am not doing the tale justice, nor am I closer to correct than if I’d said ‘supernatural contact’ or ‘human transformation.’

Ultimately, the thing that keeps the reader interested is the weaving tale the people caught in the midst of all this strangeness. Area X is what moves the plot along (even as its narrative bounces around between time periods, one of the few problems I had with this last book), but the characters created are intensely human; yes, even the biologist, in all her forms. This humanity gets its hooks in the reader early in book one, Annihilation, and digs in deeper right through to the very last lines of Acceptance: I must say here that the book concludes in a poignant letter that, though ostensibly weak, is set up deftly and then expertly placed like a period at the end of sentence.

These brave near-misses almost always turn out to be hits, and that is a credit to the author’s ability to push himself; and its our fortune to get such a well-written and engrossing Sci-fi tale out of it. I highly recommend this trilogy.

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