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Onyx reviews: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/24/2014

Thirty years ago, there was an incident—an event—at a forgotten stretch of the Gulf Coast. No one knows exactly what happened that day. Everyone (almost everyone) who lived in the region died and a boundary materialized, preventing people from entering the area, even by boat. This isn't Stephen King's "dome," but a close cousin, perhaps.

The enclosed region becomes known as Area X, and a government agency, the Southern Reach, is established to both keep its nature hidden from the world at large and to determine exactly what its nature is. The cover story is that the area has been poisoned by a major ecological disaster caused by a failed experiment. 

There is one known entrance to Area X, guarded by soldiers and lethal defense systems. Its exit points are less well understood, not that many people who enter Area X get a chance to use them. Since the ill-defined event, Southern Reach has been training and sending exploratory missions through the barrier. The first was a disaster, with only one man returning, bearing with him some extremely disturbing video. Other missions have met with varying degrees of success and failure as Southern Reach learns the rules of what Area X will permit, and what it won't. Some teams became violent with each other. Some team members suddenly appeared at their homes with no idea how they got there and few memories of the expedition. Most of those who return are adversely affected, either mentally or physically. The personal journals they create during these expeditions rarely make it back to Southern Reach.

The first book in the trilogy, Annihilation, describes the events of the twelfth expedition into Area X. It's not really the twelfth, as readers will discover in later books, merely the first of the twelfth team concept. This time, the group consists of four women. They bring nothing technological with them, because Area X shuns modern gadgetry. They don't even bring their names: their identities are subsumed by their functions: psychiatrist, biologist, surveyor and anthropologist (the linguist drops out of the mission before crossing into Area X). The explorers have some information gleaned by previous missions, but only a carefully selected subset. Though this fact is unknown to most of the team, the biologist has a personal reason to be there. Her husband was one of the mysteriously returned members of an eleventh mission. He (and every other member of that team) subsequently died of cancer. 

Area X is a mystifying place. Like the strange island on Lost, on the surface it looks normal and yet something isn't quite right. Time seems to work differently there. Objects left behind by previous excursions decompose at an accelerated rate. The air and the environment seem fresher and cleaner, as if something has been undoing the damage caused by mankind. And then there's the tunnel...or tower, as the biologist insists on calling it. To the Southern Reach, it is the TA, the topographic anomaly. No one has ever figured out what it is, even though previous missions have entered and descended at least partway the spiral staircase within. In fact, the entire TA may be alive, an insult to our senses, a Lovecraftian intrusion from some alien planet or dimension. The biologist finds writing on the walls, long quasi-Biblical passages that don't actually make sense but are disturbing by their very nature. The writing is a living thing and the biologist is quickly infected by something inside the Tower. 

The most important short-term side effect of her infection is the fact that the biologist is no longer susceptible to the hypnotic suggestions that were implanted in the team members without their knowledge. Hypnosis plays a significant part in the series, adding to the sense of unease and dislocation. It makes many things suspect: are characters reporting their real memories or have they been influenced by post-hypnotic suggestion to fabricate—or forget—certain details. Freed of her susceptibility to the Southern Reach's control, the biologist is, perhaps, a more reliable narrator, but she is a reluctant one. A taciturn woman who has been happiest when by herself, exploring remote ecologies. As the team implodes, the novel becomes a struggle between her and the psychologist for control and survival. The biologist discovers things at the lighthouse, one of a handful of important geographic locations in Area X, that alter her understanding of her reality.

The second book, Authority, takes place in the aftermath of the twelfth excursion. A new director has been appointed to Southern Reach to try to regain the organization's focus and mission. His name is John, but he anoints himself Control, even though he doesn't have as much of that as he'd like. His career to this point has been fraught with scandal and disappointment, a fact known to the assistant director, who immediately locks horns with him and foils him at every turn. 

The previous director, as it turns out, was the psychologist on the twelfth mission, and she is missing in action. The assistant director still believes the director will return, so she is protective of her former boss and resentful of anyone who attempts to replace her. The other three members of the team returned as mysteriously as the men of the eleventh mission. Two showed up at their homes, while the biologist was found in a vacant lot. Of the three, she is the most interesting to Southern Reach. She doesn't speak much in response to their questions and they suspect she knows more than she is willing to admit. Her professed amnesia might just be a convenient excuse to withhold information. 

Control tries to get up to speed about what Southern Reach actually knows about Area X. In truth, the many expeditions into the mysterious territory have not produced much concrete information. There are many, many theories about what is going on over there, but little proof. Some believe that when teams cross into Area X, they are actually going somewhere else, perhaps to another planet or dimension, which leaves open the question of what actually exists where Area X seems to be. The terrain on the other side of the barrier looks much like it did before. However, Area X has an impressive ability to mimic things, so it's not clear what is real and what is a mirage.

The previous director, whose name isn't what everyone thinks it is and who has deeper ties to Area X than most people realize, was obsessed with the mystery. Control gradually goes through her disaster of an office and is amazed by what he finds, much of it defying logic. A plant that won't die. A cell phone that seems to have a mind of its own. Mad writing on a closet's walls. Gibberish notes scrawled on place mats, napkins and whatever paper the former director had available at the time. 

All is not right with other people at Southern Reach, either, including a mad scientist who has written a lengthy and semi-incoherent treatise on the concept of Area X as terroir (a unique geographic confluence generally associated with wine production). Control gradually uncovers the source of the man's madness—an unauthorized incursion into Area X. In fact, not all is right with Control himself, for he, too, may be influenced by his superiors back at Central, one of whom he knows only as "the Voice," to whom he makes regular reports. When he records himself making one of these calls, he comes to understand how little control he truly has.

His best potential source of reliable information about Area X is the biologist, with whom he tries to form a connection and, to a certain extent, succeeds. But who is she, really? Her name is never revealed (she calls herself Ghost Bird, her husband's pet name for her) and, after she "returns" from her mission, she insists that she's not the biologist, either. Is she, perhaps, a fabrication of Area X? If so, what's her purpose? As Area X undergoes an abrupt and radical change, Control follows her almost literally to the ends of the earth and down a rabbit hole that leads back into Area X, which is where he and the biologist find themselves in the third novel.

Acceptance is different from the previous two books in that it has multiple viewpoint characters and flips backwards and forwards in time and across the divide between the real world and Area X. Ghost Bird and Control travel to a coastal island that previous missions seemed to almost deliberately ignore, as if they'd been brainwashed into believing it was of no consequence. There they encounter a person familiar to them both, a survivor of Area X's recent devastation, but that individual has been there for many more years than they can account for. Time does indeed move differently in Area X. This trio learns more about the nature of Area X, but much remains unexplained.

The three books are described as a trilogy, but they do not exactly tell a sequential story, and are somewhat different in style and voice. Common to them all is a disturbing and surreal sense of dislocation. Annihilation is told in first person from the biologist's point of view, and Authority is a third person account of Control's experiences after he's appointed director of Southern Reach. One does follow naturally from the other, but they are almost self-contained stories in their own right. In Acceptance, the sections that fill in the director's backstory are told in second person. Readers get to meet, for the first time, the lighthouse keeper who was at the epicenter of the mysterious event, and find out what the island resident experienced during the years (or days) since Area X started expanding. 

Readers who expect neat, tidy explanations for everything, and for a story that is wrapped up with a tidy bow at the end may well be disappointed. However, Vandermeer is tackling an enormous mystery here, one of Lovecraftian proportions. Readers are told that the videotape from the disastrous first mission is so disturbing that people are only allowed to view it for an hour at a time, but what does that mean, exactly? He wisely does not attempt to describe the unsettling aspects in detail; otherwise, readers are likely to see the zippers in the monsters' suits. He upsets readers by describing how upset the characters are upon witnessing inexplicable incidents. 

Southern Reach has been trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Area X for three decades without scratching the surface of the enigma. Even with the biologist's unique perspective and position relative to this mysterious landscape, all she and her fellow travelers can do is peel back a bit of the surface and stare into the abyss. The human need to understand absolutely everything we encounter can, on occasion, prove destructive, as the former expedition members learned. Perhaps some things are beyond human comprehension, no matter how hard people try to understand. If the entities behind Area X are vastly older than Earth's history of intelligent life, than we are little more than ants to them: a potential nuisance, perhaps of mild interest, but mostly beneath recognition. The Southern Reach trilogy is a wildly imaginative creation that ensnares readers while at the same time confounding them. 

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