Southern Reach Trilogy is a smart and scary science fiction story that offers literate thrills for those willing to stick through it. The trilogy is LOST crossed with an apocalyptic Lovecraft scenario. It’s an ecological disaster story at heart but spends considerable amount of time examining the people and things that are exposed to the mysterious Area X and detailing the effects it has on them.
Note: I read the 3 volumes that make up the Southern Reach trilogy separately. The Amazon link is for the compilation that puts all 3 novels in one volume.
These are the kinds of books I find myself drawn to. Stories of horror that are not so much about gore, but about the effect an event has on the people involved and how they deal with it. In this case an entire government agency is formed and ends up being corrupted by what they were created to investigate.
There are small revelations that will rock you, sentences so sharp you’ll bleed from their passage. Few series have haunted me the way Southern Reach has. Area X infested my dreams every night I was reading and they were some of the most unpleasant I can recall in recent memory, and I dream pretty vividly. The reader has more information than anyone, understands when a character says, for example, “I found it in the attic.” what they are really referring to even if no one else does. But that knowledge is frustrating, leaving the reader trying to put together a puzzle and finding half the pieces are still missing and what is left is inscrutable.
For much of the narrative there are no definitive answers for the characters or readers, only a series of questions whose answers have no meaning because there is no context to ask them. Only in the final book, Acceptance, are questions of “What” and “Why” answered yet still kept vague. There is an explanation in the end, although you may not find it satisfying. I liked it because it didn’t rely on a huge exposition dump. Only a few sentences were used to explain where Area X came from and what it was doing, but even then there was nothing that could be done. The ending is a bit inscrutable but a fitting conclusion to the unsettling narrative.
The entire series is thrilling, smart, scary, and thought provoking. If you are a science fiction fan you shouldn’t miss it.
I will go into each book in the series and try to limit spoilers as much as possible but if this description already intrigues you I recommend starting at Annihilation and not reading this review any further. Without knowing what is coming it is much more rewarding to explore the mysteries right alongside the characters. Given the dense narrative I recommend reading all three one after the other without a break.
The 12th Expedition is sent in to Area X, a mysterious wilderness protected by a permeable border that had appeared a number of years before. On this expedition are 4 women, each identified by their title. No names are allowed in Area X. The Psychologist; the leader of the team, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist. Annihilation concerns itself with the Biologist and the story is her view point and account of what occurred during their expedition. The entire book takes place in Area X offering no relief or break from the unsettling events and creeping sense of dread. As the Biologist learns she has been manipulated into behaving a certain way she breaks free from the vague parameters of the mission and makes some frightening discoveries that serve to deepen the mystery of Area X.
“Was he the woman with no clue where the ant was or the ant, unaware it was on the woman?”
A new director arrives to try and take control of the failing Southern Reach on the heels of the disastrous 12th Expedition. John Rodriguez, who tells everyone to call him ‘Control’, has had a number of clandestine posts in his long career. Director of the Southern Reach will turn out to be the most memorable. He inadvertently makes enemies with the Assistant Director which makes his job of sorting out what is going wrong with the investigation into Area X that much harder. His progress is monitored by a shadowy government agency called “Central” and he must make daily reports to a handler he knows only as “Voice”. For every secret Control uncovers about Area X he has a dozen more questions, mirroring the reader. Area X does not give up its secrets easily, and neither does this enigmatic story. Like the first book, Annihilation, the title Authority has a lot of meanings and becomes the central focus of the book. Who is in charge? Who has ultimate authority over the investigation? Who is in charge of those in charge? It’s a dizzying concept and Vandermeer mines it ferociously from all angles delivering a creepy, frightening mystery that is steeped in paranoia. The more Control and the reader learns about Area X and the Southern Reach, the more apparent it is that there is no stopping the advancing of Area X borders into our planet and it may already be too late.
“Don’t forget about me! Take care of yourself!”
In the aftermath of the events of Authority, some members of the Southern Reach find themselves in Area X. Unlike the first 2 books in the series, Acceptance is told from multiple view points and jumps back and forth in time to, among others; the forgotten coast pre-Area X formation, the 12th expedition as recounted in Annihilation, and continuing the events after Authority. It fills in many missing pieces from the earlier books while continuing to provide answers that only lead to more questions. Reading all three books in a row is helpful here because subtle uses of terminology and description tie in to the other books. For instance, in Annihilation the Psychologist insists on calling the anomaly a “tunnel” and even questions the Biologist calling it a “tower”. In Acceptance she refers to is as a “tower” which leads to even more questions of what she was really trying to accomplish during the 12th expedition. The book digs even deeper exposing who was really controlling the Southern Reach and the Area X investigation.