Yes, I am aware that this is the last book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. And yes, I do see the irony in the fact that my first review of the year is of the final book of a series. That being said, I’m gonna cheat a little bit and use this review as an excuse to discuss all three books, and remember in future years not to start a series at the end of the year.
Over the past couple months I’ve made a return to genre fic after years of more “literary” reading. Blame my English major, which brings with it both volumes upon volumes of required reading and lots of book-shaming from peers. (But those people are wrong and horrible so let’s move on.)
I used to love fantasy and sci-fi as a kid, and even though I’m only just getting back into it after several years away, this is one of the best sci-fi series I’ve read. It centers around a mysterious location called Area X, a section of coastline that has been under isolation since a strange border came down several years before. No one knows why or how it happened, or even very much about how the area has fared since then. The Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency created to uncover the secrets of Area X, has spent many of its resources training expeditions to explore the lost coastline.
The first book, Annihilation, is told through the journal of one of the members of the twelfth expedition called the Biologist. When I first began reading, I was a bit skeptical because I may be a bit biased against first-person, epistolary formats. (If anyone can direct me to other books that will cure me of this tendency I’m open to suggestion.)
Anyway, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong, and Annihilation is still my favorite book in the series. By telling the story the way he does, VanderMeer is able to withhold information about Area X and the Southern Reach, only occasionally providing peeks at the sinister truth behind them. Over the course of the series he continually shifts perspectives to adjust what and how much readers know, but never grants a finite explanation. This ambiguity allows readers to substitute their own nightmarish conclusions.
Though not my favorite of the series, Acceptance is certainly the most ambitious. Throughout, VanderMeer shifts between three narratives: the story of Area X before the border, the story of the Southern Reach just before Annihilation, and the story of Area X after the twelfth expedition. While this reveals more to readers than ever before, it also causes a lot more questions.
Ultimately, what sold me on the series was the creeping, lingering horror that we can’t see the full scope of these terrible events, or even understand enough to know whether they are hostile takeovers or natural happenings, whether an outside force is acting upon us, or if we ignorantly brought it all upon ourselves.