Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014)
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
There is a powerful spell of which many of those active in online criticism have for some time been aware. SUMMON VANDERMEER is best effected simply by referring to one of the eponymous scribbler’s works in a published review, blog post or comment; upon conjuring, VanderMeer will manifest, most often offering a faintly under-written defence of even the smallest gripe or criticism, occasionally doing so in a way which leaves the readers of this digital ectoplasm less than confident that the summoned sprite meant to do that.
VanderMeer’s occasionally less than happy history of engaging with his readers makes the rapturous response to his Southern Reach trilogy all the more remarkable. Coming as it does after something of a break from fiction – VanderMeer has in recent years made most (and significant) impact in editorial conjunction with his wife, Ann – the trilogy is as heavy and serious a statement as a returning writer could possibly wish to make. It is a distillation of the genre in which he is now widely regarded as an expert, the Weird; it is an act of astonishingly wide-ranging pop-culture criticism; and it is a furiously well-written, sometimes shockingly evocative story of ecological disaster, adaptation and accommodation.
Set in a world in which a tranche of land known only as Area X has been given over entirely to a weird physics with no identifiable origin or cause, the novel centres on the invisible but impermeable border with few know egresses which separates Area X from all but the ill-fated expeditions sent by the government agency set the task of investigating it, the Southern Reach. In this scenario, VanderMeer plays with issues of perception and penetration: how Area X can and can’t be measured or understood; how it may or may not interact with the world beyond it; and what its creeping weirdness, its inhospitability and indifference to human beings might mean or portend.
The first volume of the trilogy, the quite unusually discomfiting Annihilation, follows the group of women who enter Area X as the Southern Reach’s twelfth expedition (but who are in fact much further along a hidden sequence of secret visits that that). We never learn the names of any of the expedition’s members but instead come to know them by their function: the viewpoint character, for instance, is identified as the biologist and her desire to observe and understand proves ill-suited to the impossibilities of Area X. Most obviously, this includes the subterranean structure on the walls of which is written a recursive prayer-like koan in iridescent script. Counter-intuitively known by the biologist knows as the Tower, it houses the Crawler, a fractal, shifting being which appears to contain the essence of Area X and yet is utterly ineffable. “The longer I stared at it,” bemoans the expedition’s supposed expert on unusual organisms, “the less comprehensible it became.”
VanderMeer is quite brilliant in this first volume at instilling in the reader the disorientation and terror which Area X inspires in the expedition. To read Annihilation is to interface with the inaccessible. VanderMeer’s spare prose presents the illusion of transparency, the suggestion of clarity, but the subjects of his sentences are something other, crafted to be just beyond the extent of his diction: “I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore”. This is crystalline writing, cut and polished to gleam, but what it quite means is unclear. Only by accretion and exposure does the reader begin to piece together a working understanding of events and it is a real achievement of VanderMeer’s that unlike many lesser writers of the Weird he does not revel in incomprehension. He rewards his reader.
He also tests them. In the second volume, Authority, VanderMeer leaves Area X entirely for the confines of the Southern Reach’s headquarters. Here, the protagonist is John Rodriguez, a disgraced former counter-terrorism field agent who prefers the nickname Control. This, of course, echoes Le Carré and, where Annihilation distilled the Weird, at times Authority seems to refract spy fiction and thrillers. This second book may test the patience of some. It feels in many ways less urgent and less alarming than the first, yet I think in its uncanny depiction of office politics it sounds a satirical note which adds a new voicing to the trilogy’s overall euphony.
One of Control’s most creative staff scientists, Whitby, develops a terroir theory of Area X: that, as with wine, “environmental varietals” have conspired to produce specific and unrepeatable effects within its weird boundaries. But the palimpsests of agendas and personalities at the failing Southern Reach lead Control to another conclusion, “finding now in Whitby’s terroir theory something that might apply more to the Southern Reach than to Area X”. That is, Control (again denied a real name) is out of control, both of a territory which systematically and entirely erases all trace of human activity (reshaping it as weird doubles or fatal cancers) and also of the agency designed to contain it. “Topological anomaly?” Control imagines his grandfather scoffing at the term used by his staff to describe the Tower. “Don’t you mean some kind of spooky thing that we know nothing, absolutely fucking nothing about, to go with everything else we don’t know?”
Control’s family have more purchase on this bureaucratic farce than his mere imaginings. Control is Acting Director of the Southern Reach at the behest of his powerful spymaster mother, following the disappearance on an expedition of the previous incumbent. The drifting of the trilogy into the family saga genre can feel like a bridge too far. Control’s mother proves to be an important character and his relationship with her is therefore rather more significant than the queasy attenuation VanderMeer sketches with notable facility for unease. At first they read as another iteration of the trilogy’s over-arching theme that most people want “to be close to but not part of”]; their rapidly apparent plot importance makes the story oddly local for a trilogy constantly skirting the cosmic.
Perhaps, though, we require an anchor: Authority ends with Control and the returned double of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird) finding a fresh entrance into an expanding Area X, which seems if anything more rather than less strange on second encounter. Indeed, the third and final volume of the trilogy, Acceptance, proves both its most ineffable and its most up-front. Told from a range of perspectives – Control, Ghost Bird, the former Director and, most disturbingly of all, the lighthouse keeper in the region that becomes in the course of his story Area X – connections begin to be made. The trilogy rejects the idea that any single one of us can perceive completely and its multi-voice finale attempts to show why.
“There’s nothing to this world but what our senses tell us about it,” insists Control, “and all I can do is the best I can based on that information.”. Control is repeatedly undone by this inflexibility and he passes through these novels rather lost and buffeted; his opposite number is the twin-face of the biologist and Ghost Bird, who seek to inhabit a space as natively as possible. “Area X was all around them; Area X was contained in no one place or figure. It was the dysfunction in the sky […] the heavens and earth. It could interrogate you from any position or no position at all, and you might not even recognise its actions as a form of questioning.”
In the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts has written better than anyone about the ways in which the Southern Reach trilogy in this way reimagines nature writing for our troubled times. What does it mean that our environment is altering in ways we don’t understand, into shapes for which we are not necessarily suited and in a manner that emphasises its indifference to our presence? The expeditions of the Southern Reach are forays fated to doom because they seek human-sized solutions to these questions; VanderMeer’s inexplicable clarity is an idiom suited to disputing this.
But in its lovers and families, its terrorists and spies, its intimate villages and expansive governments, the world of the Southern Reach is also more widely about connection and motivation. In fact, I’d suggest that to read the richness of the trilogy through a purely ecological lens is to deny the potency of its effect. In the lighthouse keeper’s tale there are moments of pure horror – “Sadi spun and twitched and twisted on the floor, slamming into chairs and table legs, beginning to come to pieces” – but it is impossible to challenge Ghost Bird’s welcoming of the inevitable accommodation to come. The simultaneity of the horror and beauty of Area X – that the individual cannot prevail against the universal – is the terror and redemption at the heart of our every interaction.
All of which is to say that the Southern Reach is preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive. We will all in future SUMMON VANDERMEER with markedly less trepidation.
Due to production deadlines, space and my own laziness, this issue of the BSFA Review contains no editorial from me. Instead, here is the lead review.
Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
Get Katja by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
The Just City by Jo Walton (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
City Of Endless Night by Milo M. Hastings (Hesperus Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
Terror And Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, exhibition (British Library, 5 October 2014 to 20 January 2015) and book, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Complete Uncle by JP Martin, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Matador, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
Half A King by Joe Abercrombie, (Orbit, 2014) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
Last week the Guardian had a feature feature on the first book you remember reading. I have absolutely no idea. But, as it happens, last week my son read his first book: Hug by Jez Alborough.
Okay, it only contains three words but he nailed it. Books are freaking awesome.
Since my post about my draft BSFA Awards nominations, two things have happened. First, Best Fan Writer-in-waiting Nina Allan has posted her recommendations for the BSFA Non-Fiction Award. Second, I’ve signed up with Pocket, got the plug-in for Chrome and activated En2Kindle to allow me to automatically save webpages to my Kindle. Since most of my free time is spent away from a computer and my phone is a little too small to make reading articles or stories a pleasure, I’m hopeful that this will allow me to better keep abreast of things rather than bookmarking them for later and never returning. I’ve started by whacking a load of Allan’s recommendations over, including the following pieces from Jonathan McCalmont:
- Short Fiction And The Feels
- ‘Deep Forests And Manicured Gardens: A Look At Two New Short Fiction Magazines’
- ‘A Perspective On Perspectives’
McCalmont should be another Best Fan Writer-in-waiting but I suspect he will be waiting in perpetuity. Over the course of these five posts, he makes a broad ranging assessment of the contemporary SF short fiction that mixes big, bold theorising with a close reading of individual stories. Allan notes that she “remains undecided as to how much of Jonathan’s argument I agree with – all mulchy middle ground, me – but I find much that interests me in his viewpoint, and the gutsiness of his writing always leaves me feeling liberated and inspired generally.” For me, it is not just his gutsiness but his ambition; I quite often disagree with his theories but this big picture approach, grounded but not mired in academic thought, is vanishingly rare.
In terms of the BSFA Awards, I do worry that his vote will be split. Like Allan, I think the three middle posts are essentially a single piece and the strongest individual part of the total argument. But I know Ian Sales in his nomination post went for ‘Short Fiction And The Feels’. Sales also rightly praises Allan’s own non-fiction and says nice things about ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy’, the Strange Horizons symposium both her and me contributed to. I was proud to be a part of it so I’m glad others found it worthwhile.
Speaking of Strange Horizons, I’ve just been commissioned for my first review under the new triumphivrate of editors who have taken over from Abigail Nussbaum (another Best Fan Writer-in-waiting but the one who probably won’t be waiting that long). It will be my first review in a while but hopefully this year I will be producing a bit more non-fiction as well as reading more.
We are half way through the month so it is worth reminding members of the British Science Fiction Association that nominations close for the BSFA Awards at the end of the month. This year they are crowd-sourcing suggestions and, as with the Hugos, I also thought I’d post my draft nominations here.
Best Novel was the easiest category for me this year as I’ve read a surprising amount of good, current fiction. Those who read my last BSFA Review editorial won’t be particularly surprised by my choices:
- The Race by Nina Allan
- Wolves by Simon Ings
- Southern Reach by Jeff Vandermeer
- Echopraxia by Peter Watts
As well as writing one of the best books of the year, Allan has also written a very helpful post covering her candidates for Best Non-Fiction. She starts with an epiphany:
What if every BSFA Awards voter (and Hugo voter) were to read just twenty pieces of new short fiction every year? Surely this would have at least some impact, not just upon individuals’ knowledge of the field but on their sense of investment in the awards process. Whether through random online reading (one of the most radical advancements in the field in recent years has been the increasing quality and availability of free short fiction online) or through the purchase of magazine subscriptions would be down to individual inclination and cash available, but I honestly do think the twenty-shorts-per-year formula would have a considerable effect on the discourse around short fiction. Why not try it and see?
I came to a similar conclusion last (you’ll have seen some of the results of that earlier) and I hope other voters do adopt this approach. Anyway, here are my three favourite stories from my own reading:
- Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade
- ‘The Bonedrake’s Penance’ by Yoon Ha Lee
- Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
I’m currently reading through Allan’s recommendations for the fourth slot. Posts like hers provide a vital service in trying to filter the vast about of work out there. Moving from words to Best Artwork, recommendation post are even more helpful as it so easy to quickly check out a large amount of different pieces of art online. Carl V Anderson has got pretty different taste to me but this post is a helpful taster of what is out there. So far I’ve been concentrating on book covers and my three favourites are:
- Wolves by Jeffrey Alan Love
- Voyage Of The Basilisk by Todd Lockwood
- Mirror Empire by Richard Anderson
My final slot goes to ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Tessa Farmer. Which leaves Best Non-Fiction. Despite the fact this is my field, it is often the category I struggle most with. But the single piece of criticism that has stayed with me the most this year is this:
Peachum, the black surgeon, was massaging a heart. Bored, he turned to his wife: “Where’s that lump of sensuality?”
“Polly’s out courting. He’s a very nice man; a Captain, you know. Ever so well turned out, he wears gloves like a Vicky. He’s got this awful scar on his neck though. Well, I suppose he is a war hero.”
At his table, gloved in gore, Peachum ground his molars silently. A scar on his neck, eh?
Several floors below, deep inside the asteroid New London, his daughter was in the process of marrying this scarred captain. Polly was wearing white, of course, and MacHeath was wearing his dress uniform, medals agleam. It was the happiest day of her life. Pirouetting, Polly broke into song:
And Pirate Jenny was dancing for pennies,
The knucklebones tossed in a spin.
A man came running up. Polly tried to think of him as one of the groom’s guests, rather than one of his henchmen. “Boss,” he panted, “the sheriff’s coming.”
“Of course he’s coming, you cretin. I invited him.” And with these words Major Brown appeared, resplendent in the full regalia of the office of High Sheriff.
“Ah, Jackie, it’s been awhile,” exclaimed MacHeath.
They had both seen service on Rakshasha; Brown in the Fleet Aerospace Arm whereas MacHeath had found his true vocation on the ground as a special forces officer. The skills and ideas this had furnished him with had placed a considerable burden on their relationship of late but Brown still found himself inextricably bonded to the man.
“I see you’re married.” With his stained apron and thick forearms, Peachum he looked like a butcher.
Polly held up her hand. “Like my ring?”
His arms uncoiled and, grasping her hand tightly, he appraised the ring. “Aye, it’s very nice. I expect the Duchess of Devonshire thought so too, before it was forcibly removed from her possession. Along with her finger. Well, it does my heart glad to see you married to an amoral sneakthief and prolific rapist. MacHeath is the impacted faeces in the bowels of this fair city-state.”
Polly looked like she had been slapped. “How can you say that?”
Silently Peachum extracted a business card:
“The world is poor, and man’s a shit
And that is all there is to it.”
“I know the fucking family motto,” she spat, stalking off.
MacHeath lay in the arms of a mechanical prostitute, thinking about his father-in-law. Who would have though the old man still had so much pull?
“You shouldn’t have come here, Mac,” pouted Heidi 3000. “I’ve alerted the police to your presence.”
MacHeath sighed. She was, of course, programmed to do this. It had been probably been ill-advised to visit his favourite gynoid knocking shop but emptying his balls helped him think.
On cue a bulky figure in full contact body armour burst through the door. “Coming quietly are we, Mr MacHeath?”
In answer MacHeath unloaded his holdout pistol into the constable’s face and jumped out the window. Whilst this hurt considerably it did not aid his escape as he landed amongst a squad of equally heavily armoured police.
One of them thoughtfully placed an enormous Gauss rifle against his temple. “You’re nicked, sunshine.”
The British were a civilised empire – not for them the laser guillotine. No, MacHeath would be fired out of a cannon into the sun. Brown stood to attention; his dress uniform had seen a lot of use this week. Mac might have been an utter cunt but he had served the empire well. And, in the end, wasn’t that what mattered?
As the air boiled in his lungs and blood leaked from his ears, MacHeath’s life flashed before his eyes. He developed a fierce erection. Before he could start to enjoy himself, he was suddenly displaced from the void. As he hacked and thrashed his way back to life, he became dimly aware of a woman standing over him. If she was human, she certainly wasn’t British but MacHeath had always prided himself on a racial liberalism when it came to attractive females.
“Drugs?” she asked, proffering a steaming bowl.
“Who are you?” MacHeath managed as the fumes hit his veins.
“My name is Rasz-Arguhl Bumpsetta Heraldo Aptimel d’. You can call me Bumpsie. I come from a utopian post-scarcity society in need of a bastard.”
MacHeath spat blood on to the floor. “I’m your man.”
Peachum stared out the porthole at nothingness. He hated bloody deus ex machinas.
Apologies to Gay, Brecht and everyone else.
Today marks the end of National Short Story Week and I actually did read quite a bit of short fiction, including two great stories about the sea.
First up, ‘Drawn Up From Deep Places’ by Gemma Files. This is part of my continued read-through of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and is exactly the sort of ‘Literary Adventure Fantasy’ I’ve been searching for. It is part of a series so I’m looking forward to going back to read ‘Two Captains’ as well as future installments.
Next, ‘The Mussel Eater’ by Octavia Cade. I only discovered Cade earlier in the year but she has had a prolific and impressive 2014. ‘The Mussel Eater’ is shorter and sharper than most of the other work she published this year but is wonderful to have. Equally wonderful to have is Book Smugglers Publishing.
As well as reading, I also made a rare excursion outside the house to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at my old local church, St John’s in Hackney. I hadn’t read anything about the gig in advance so was surprised and pleased to see he was joined by Matt Sweeney which meant we were treated to this rendition of ‘My Home Is The Sea':