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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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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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