BSFA Review – Vector #278
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