The Southern Reach series: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer

Deep in the vegetative abyss of Area X, within the walls of a blood spattered lighthouse, a foreboding heap of forgotten journals lay moldering and unread, their owners long submerged into the ecology of the nebulous terrain. This journal is not part of that pile. This journal is my weak attempt to be different in a world where everybody already reviewed this series months ago.

WARNING! SPOILERS AND DEAD MOSQUITOES AHEAD!

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INITIATION

Day 1: I downloaded the book, which I was not planning to read, the moment the librarian tweeted about a discount. I did not tell him about my purchase, for I had no real interest in the tale, and I wasn’t sure I would complete it. My mission was simple: to objectively evaluate the story for entertainment value, despite everyone losing their shit over it. I thought I was impervious to the hype, but now I see that my position was already undermined.

These are my thoughts…

Day 2: I feel a strange giddiness about this book, for reasons I cannot identify. The language is leaden, dry, and the protagonist is laconic and aloof. The peripheral characters are little more than caustic paper cutouts, an unrealistic team for such an undertaking. I feel little sympathy for these people. Only an idiot would go into Area X under these conditions.

And yet, I continue to read. My mind keeps returning to underlying question: What lies hidden beneath all this buffed up descriptive imagery?

Day 2.5: The librarian found out that I’m reading this. I suspect the bartender told him. I’m withholding comment until I’m deeper in.

Day 3: I’ve hit a wall. You know that feeling you get when someone is describing a really weird dream they had the night before? The dreamer is swept up in the emotional tide of those details, but the words that describe those disjointed images have little impact on the listener. That’s how I feel right now. The imagery is vivid, but there is no emotional pull.

So far, the anthropologist is a dead, gruesome corpse, and the psychologist is a manipulative hypnotist, yet the narrative focuses on the glow-in-the-dark slug graffiti— what I can only describe as the world’s longest run-on sentence. I think the Crawler reads too much Lovecraft.

Day 3.5: I told the librarian that I had to stop reading due to descriptive imagery fatigue. He said I was just like the biologist in the story: curt and fungal.

I knew I couldn’t trust him.

Day 4: Currently reading The World of Null-A. The protagonist is exploring a tunnel on Venus. ‘It’s a tower, not a tunnel,’ I tell myself.

Shit. Wrong book.

This book has a way of colonizing you.

Day 5: I’ve returned to the book. I feel a sudden interest that I can only describe as a brightness. It keeps calling me to return, to acknowledge its existence.

Somewhere in my heart, I’ve begun to believe that there is no other book I would rather read.

I think I’m changing.

Day 5.5: It’s past my bedtime but I’ve completed the book. The last half took only a few hours, instead of a few days, as if the book had contracted like Area X.

A few key moments have penetrated my guard. The shooting, the mysterious moaning organism in the reeds, the bearded lighthouse keeper in the tower. I’m creeped out, it’s late, and it’s raining outside. A giant flying ant attacked me from behind the bathroom mirror. I feel like nature is provoking me.

I need to sleep. I want to read more. I need to sleep. I want to read more.

Where lies the strangling book…

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STAGNATION

Day 6: I’ve started the second book. The style is different, more vivid. The characters are deeply drawn. I realize the dryness of the previous book was a stylistic decision to mirror the dehumanizing toll of the Area X expeditions. I get it, but I think I’ll enjoy this book more.

Day 7: I’ve read nearly half of it before I realize I’m bored again. It’s time for Control to free Ghost Bird and breach Area X, but instead he just mopes around Southern Reach puzzling about a plant.

I ask the librarian if something is going to happen soon. He says at the end. I roll my eyes.

Need a break. Reading The Bone Clocks.

Day 8: People keep tweeting an article about how this series is like Lost, but with a more satisfying ending. I hope so. If this sucker ends with a giant slug slithering off into a white light with its friends, I’m going to post VanderMeer a dead mouse.

Day 8.5: Shit, it’s scary again. A smashed mosquito on a window should not be scary, but it is.

Day 9: I’m noticing a pattern with these books. I get swept up by the evocative mood, followed by frustration when the arc plateaus on descriptive imagery. Time to go back to Area X, people. All of this bureaucratic meddling is dull.

I miss the dead mosquito.

Day 9.5: The narrative talks about pocket universes. I picture myself in other pocket universes dropping the book and never returning. Why do I keep going?

Day 10: Holy Whitby on a shelf. I’m back in.

Day 10.5: Finished. ermphhh.

I can’t believe they never went back to Area X. Fans will call this installment a bureaucratic interlude. Detractors will call it another 10 bucks.

This is a picture I sent the librarian:

DSC_0735 (1)

He’s not talking to me anymore.

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TRANSFORMATION

Day 11: You sit in the dark on your couch commencing the final installment of the Southern Reach trilogy…

I mean, I sit on my couch reading…

I think I’m contaminated. I’m losing myself.

Day 11.5: You have nothing smartassed to say.

Day 11.75: “In the darkness of that which is golden, the [book] shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness of the earth (p. 202).

(That’s great, but “reveal the revelation?”)

Day 12: The lighthouse keeper describes his condition as “dull but intense, somehow like a second skin on the inside” (p. 197). That’s the Southern Reach trilogy.

Day 12.5: Finished. Going to slam my head against the wall a few times and then take a nice mud bath. Then I might go sleep in a tree with a dead armadillo. This is what I need right now.

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AQUIESCENCE

This story is more than a story. It’s a warning. SF does ecological apocalypse all the time, SF does Lovecraft all the time, and even sentient landscapes have already been done (check out Hank’s latest Van Vogt read at MPorcius Fiction Log for an early example). But Southern Reach is something unique. Rich setting and character development draw most of VanderMeer’s attention and, surprisingly, the creep factor is episodic and bite-sized, ideal for cutaways in a T.V. trailer rather than the crescendo of a novel. But like the librarian says, this is a “slow burn.” If written by a different author from a different publishing house, I suspect much of this novel would not have survived in this drawn out, three book format.

It’s good. I think it will have a place as a defining staple of this generation’s SF, but you can skip the 2nd book if you’re not that into it.

(For a real review that best echoes my opinions, please refer to the excellent bookgator for her review of Authority.)

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19 thoughts on “The Southern Reach series: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. thebookgator says:

    OMG, I checked out your review and I’m in stitches by day 3.5. Absolutely brilliant. The summation of the “world’s longest sentence” written in “glow-in-the-dark slug graffiti” is brilliant. Consider me in the background, applauding and snorting my drink.

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  2. stephswint says:

    No one calls you curt and fungal!!!…WHO IS THIS LIBRARIAN YOU SPEAK OF!

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  3. Curt and fungal. Like your visits to the doctor. 🙂

    I enjoyed your foray into another format, although I think the episodic boredom you experienced may best be addressed by pharmaceuticals.

    FYI: The mosquito story actually happened to him. He also had the trunk of his car explode with fungi. Curt fungi.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the librarian.

      *skips tacit retort about read-along*

      I am not surprised that the mosquito thing happened to him. Much of the weird stuff feels anecdotal.

      Like

  4. romeorites says:

    Kurt Fungi should be a stage name for someone. Loved the format of this review.

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  5. […] reviews: Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest Jewels of Aptor (1962) by Samuel R. Delany The Southern Reach trilogy (2014) by Jeff […]

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  6. […] Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Mieville Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest Southern Reach trilogy (2014) by Jeff […]

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  7. […] also reviewed Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Well, it’s more of a non-review. Actually, it’s more like an informal review in the format of […]

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  8. […] The Southern Reach (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, A lot of books to buy) by Jeff VanderMeer: It’s all about atmosphere with this one. Dripping with tone and mood, readers who savor the experience of impending dread will enjoy this series in which prolonged scientific and bureaucratic curiosity about a mysterious environmental catastrophe results in anxiety and weird imagery. The most unique of all the 2014s listed here, it was not my favorite, but perhaps most deserving of any SF awards due to its experimental nature and potential to define our generation. That said, the three-books-in-one-year publishing format is both marketing brilliance and disrespectful to readers. And many readers will stall on the second book. I kind of, sort of parody it here. […]

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  9. […] easily be my top choice. My affection for that novel grows more over time. My guess is that Annihilation will win this one, but Leckie’s and Scalzi’s fans have surprised me […]

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  10. […] as I had problems with Annilhilation, VanderMeer’s novel about fungal terroir-ism is the most deserving and Nebbie-rific novel in […]

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  11. […] all but one on the novel shortlist, so maybe that’ll be interesting. I think VanderMeer’s Annihilation is most likely to win, though, much as I felt that the magickal tea party section was a slap in […]

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  12. […] only heard about Jeff VanderMeer in 2014 when two book bloggers I follow (BooksBrainsBeer and From Couch To Moon) reviewed books from his Southern Reach Trilogy. After reading these, I picked up the Trilogy […]

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  13. […] lurking around every corner. It also feels like an ancestor of Jeff VanderMeer’s (2014) Southern Reach series, with the detached, inhuman presence of nature’s psychic gestalt making all kinds of ominous, […]

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