I’m a sucker for a book that promises to be a mind-bender and has a bunch of people talking about how weird it is. Enter Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy.
The series is about Area X, a strip of coastline that’s been reclaimed by nature and is being shielded from the general public as a military-protected “ecological disaster site.” In the decades since Area X was formed, various expedition teams have gone through the border with the mission of documenting just what the heck is going on in there, because the truth is so much weirder than the “pristine wilderness” it’s described as. The various expeditions have gone quite wrong, with the teams alternatively killing themselves or each other inside the border of Area X, or returning as hollow shells of their former selves and succumbing to aggressive cancers within the year.
The books are total genre-benders — psychological thrillers that incorporate science fiction, horror, and mystery. Though the horror and the mystery persist across all three books, each installment takes on a dominant characteristic of its own. Annihilation is an expedition novel about the descent of a team of four women into Area X, and a fragmented and unreliable documentation of both the region and the expedition itself. Through the eyes of the biologist, Area X is strange, dangerous, and beautiful to be sure, but as she observes the psychological instability among the members of her expedition, it’s hard to say what affect Area X alone had, and what was likely resulting from the obvious mental manipulation the team experienced at the hands of the agency that sent them out into the wilds. There is, undoubtedly, something unexplained going on in Area X, but even during the first night at camp, before they’ve encountered anything notable, it’s evident that the women have been “conditioned” into unreality.
Authority picks up after the expedition in Annihilation has returned. It’s from the perspective of Control, the new acting director of the Southern Reach, the field agency overseeing the expeditions into Area X. It turns out, the leader of that last expedition was the director of the Southern Reach, and with her missing from the returning party, the agency is reeling moreso than usual. It already sucks enough to be the people responsible for not yet solving what’s going on, and getting a bunch of volunteers killed in the process, but your leader being unaccounted for grinds your already malfunctioning bureaucracy to a halt. Authority feels truly like a mystery that’s juiced up to espionage-lite, with exactly 0% of the staff at the Southern Reach ever giving Control a straight answer about anything that’s going on there, and Control trying to jockey for power, influence, and knowledge without giving away too much of his own hand.
Acceptance is probably the most straightforward of the three, utilizing multiple POVs in both the past and present to fill in detail surrounding the origins of Area X and make sense of its strange takeover of the geography it encompasses. Mixing exploration with explanation, it’s a classic dénouement. Many of the biggest mysteries behind Area X are finally addressed in a concrete, clear way, primarily through the point of view of the Lighthouse Keeper, who was living inside what became Area X at the time the change occurred. Otherwise, though, our characters in the present are still left to make sense of what Area X has become, whether it is done adapting, and what to expect moving forward.
Tonally and thematically, the trilogy reminded me of quite a bit of House of Leaves. That’s not exactly a compliment, since I didn’t particularly enjoy HoL, but there it is. This type of book is great at hooking the reader with a mystery, or series of mysteries (What the heck is Area X, and how did it happen? Who is calling the shots around Area X and why are they making those decisions? WHAT DOES ANYBODY KNOW FOR CERTAIN?) and meandering around those questions, taking a billion wrong turns while plodding toward sort-of answers. The way that these are written, with explicitly unreliable narration that whispers through a dozen layers of gauzy, dreamlike uncertainty, is unquestionably evocative and effective at establishing the terrible tension of the unknown. But goddamn, it can make the narrative really hard to follow because when the entry point of view to a story has no idea what’s going on and their mind is too disheveled to make heads or tails of the evidence that’s available to them, certainly the reader isn’t any better off. It’s not that the prose is too heavy with metaphor or flowery language, but when every interaction and observation has its meaning intentionally obfuscated, nothing seems to come through the fog of scene-setting to indelibly leave an impression of purpose on the proceedings of the story.
All of that said, I was undeniably drawn into these books — to a much greater degree than I managed with House of Leaves, which was meant to be similarly unnerving and all-encompassing — that to come down on one side or the other of a like/dislike divide is a bit too simple. I read them all very quickly and was deeply invested in the proceedings, as much as I was irritated that I didn’t feel like I was actually learning anything at all the further I got (which is almost certainly intentional, to mirror the feelings of the characters themselves.) The Southern Reach trilogy gifted me the head-scratching experience of enjoying a book and being infernally frustrated by it at the same time. When all was said and done, though, I have to say — I thought ending was underwhelming, and not even just because *not everything was explained*, but because it almost pivoted away too hard from the mystery.
(Inner monologue joke: I saw a few blurbs recommending these books to fans of Lost, the TV series.
Me then: “I hope they’re not talking about how it ends!”
Me now: -_- )
The first two books undoubtedly committed to a theme and tone, and they relied on a heavy sense of disorientation from the characters that in turn infected the reader. They set up a number of mysteries that were begging to be explained, but the explanations should need to be up to the task. These were books where the resolution would absolutely benefit by staying vague in some areas, and allowing the feelings of creepiness and confusion to remain with the reader, leaving them to deal with the unease of the world they just left. My feeling is that Acceptance, in the end, punted the ending by giving some really specific, weak answers to those questions which would have been better served by ongoing mystery, and when it reasonably could have provided clarity — wrapping up the protagonists’ narratives and giving them a forward direction — the story retreated back into the surreal and left those characters pretty much dangling.
That’s especially true for Area X itself: by the end of the series, I knew how Area X was created and more about what it was and how it worked, which was… nice. It was a major curiosity throughout the story. But it’s all so backward-looking, and it lacks any imperative. Something I love about sci-fi and speculative fiction is questioning, based on how characters in these different/advanced worlds and their technology interact with each other, how applicable their experiences are to us, and if the basic message of the story resonates in some way. As a reader, what you take away from the story comes in large part from how the characters themselves progress, or from what they learn throughout. Nothing like that really happens by the conclusion of the Southern Reach trilogy — Area X is explained a little bit, but because of how that happens through the story structure, the human characters remain mostly in the dark and the thought processes behind their choices at the end aren’t much more sophisticated than they would have been at the beginning; they still react out of fear, curiosity, and impulse.
So, you’ve got this series where the entire point is to be trippy, mysterious, and creepy, right up until the very end where it gives some surprisingly banal explanations for some of the more bizarre phenomena, ruining the mystique in the process. Based on the reviews, though, it seems I’m in the minority and this still worked for most people. And again, before I wrap up completely, like I said above, there was a lot about the books I liked, but the style and direction ultimately didn’t come together in the most satisfying way.