Annihilation, Authority & Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Tuesday 30 April 2019

Last summer before the Netflix film came out I consumed The Southern Reach Triology after seeing Thread Famous post about it. There is so much to this trilogy I want to talk about but it would be impossible to keep it spoiler free so please drop me a message if you read the series, i'd love to know what you think. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

Annihilation, the first book in the series follows a government agency known as Southern Reach sending countless failed expeditions into an unpredictable ecosystem caused by an unknown event.  This area, known as Area X and has already taken the lives of eleven failed expeditions when we enter the novel, with the latest group of four women about to embark. The group are formed of a surveyor, anthropologist, psychologist and our narrator the biologist. All stripped of their name and focusing purely on their purpose exploring in Area X.

From the first page it is clear that expedition is set up for failure. With poor, outdated equipment, nonsensical data, improper training and vague instructions. Everything comes with a sense of unease. Aside from their team leader they all have no memory of entering Area X and even more worryingly how they could ever leave. This unease sets the tone and as ‘Annihilation’ moves quickly the team desperately search for familiarity but rely more and more on their scientific training when they do not find it. The closer they come to not understanding Area X the more their team dwindle, with no connection to the nameless characters they feel manipulated, just tools for Southern Reach. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review
Between Area X and her thoughts we find out that the biologist husband had been a part of a previous expedition and returned home, but blank eyed and empty of his person. Although this appears to fuel her participation in the expedition to Area X we also find out she was more concerned with the biology of nature and ecosystems than that of her marriage so it becomes harder and harder to see where her drive comes from. 

Where the rest of the expedition focused on the previous base camp the biologist is drawn to the tunnel and then the lighthouse, aware that something is being hidden. The biologist focuses on the changes to environment, the plants and wildlife in this beautiful turn on science fiction. As we learn more about her and her motives everything is becomes almost dreamlike or cloudy, like we cannot 100% trust her. It feels like the landscape of Area X is turning on her, the biologists obsession with the tunnel she finds early on is swept in its biblical words that narrate its walls and this obsession continues to the point where she forces herself to meet its inhabitant.
I feel like I blitzed through ‘Annihilation’ VanderMeer creating this pace with fear and intrigue that meant I was unable to put the book down despite this low-fi feeling to the environment. You keep reading because you want answers but the answers are in the environment itself. 

The biologist pushes on to the lighthouse where she finds the journals from previous exhibitions strewn together, pointless almost. When she finds her husbands journal she decides to follow his journey, hoping to find some remnants of him rather than the shell that came back to her. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

Authority, the second book in the Southern Reach series sees a focus on the government agency itself. Set immediately after the first book and the twelfth expedition ‘Authority’ sees a new director of the Southern Reach, John Rodriguez who refers to himself as Control. 

The previous director left with the twelfth expedition and Control mundanely takes her place rather than the assistant director Grace. The novel falls into a completely different pace from ‘Annihilation’ but also shows a much more run down, dated and underfunded government complex, completely different to the image we are painted of Southern Reach initially.

Control methodically works through all the data the previous director had collected with a dull narrative, after reading the first book you want to shake him into seeing the matter at hand but that is impossible. VanderMeer slowly works in oddities and incidents that build up tension especially within the voice Control has to report to everyday and to remind of us of the unknown of Area X. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

As Control works through the previous directors office we are met with a series of unusual things and scenes that almost parallel the biologist from the first book. Each strange and unnerving incident pushing towards Area X’s instability. 

Whereas ‘Annihilation’ took place in a fast paced, vast, evolving state ‘Authority’ feels stifled and claustrophobic in a completely different perspective from the first book and not at all what I was expecting. The more Control reveals about himself it seems the more we learn about Southern Reach, Area X and the Biologist. The Southern Reach series defying genre and a completely new take on science fiction. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

Acceptance, the third and final book in the trilogy mixes characters from the first two books with new perspectives, time and space. I am going to refrain from mentioning which characters however as it will take some of the beauty from the conclusion to the trilogy. 

VanderMeer is remarkable for creating this alien ecological masterpiece, each unsettling moment building into emotive crashing waves.  ‘Acceptance’ has answers but not all of them, reading the three books one after the other makes it clear why they were all released so close together but individually they are all so different. 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

Pushing to see the other side to this hostile change, the ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy is showing the intelligence of nature through science fiction. The genre does not have to be shiny, robotic and futuristic in the way we imagine it but the unease in alien forms in a natural world with unusual time frames and unique lives.  

Acceptance’ brought a satisfying ending to a remarkable triology, connecting all the threads of the first two books and seamlessly bringing in new characters. It left me thinking and desperately looking for answers in our own world and an almost recognisable present when even those in Area X struggled to. Is there a centralised consciousness? As Area X takes over, human, plant and animal life what is driving this natural intelligence? 

Image of the southern reach trilogy from typewriter teeth review

This series is incredible, tense and a quick read. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to get lost in something so close but otherworldly for a while. 

Grab the series here or this beautiful copy here

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