The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Part 1: Annihilation

March 05, 2015

FYI: My recent inability to shut up about this trilogy is 100% Julianne's fault.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer comprises Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. The first is sub-200 pages, with the latter two close to 350 each because VanderMeer is a tease. I finished Annihilation at the start of February was really hoping I could read all of these around the same time and post a hefty, well-organized review. Alas, the library gods were not on my side.

The other two books came in five days after I tweeted this. I'm going to be sad about my first world problem and post my thoughts on Annihilation in the meantime.

Annihilation introduces us to the all-female team of the twelfth expedition to Area X, a stretch of wilderness cut off from civilization after a mysterious, unknown "thing" happened there. The Southern Reach, an equally mysterious agency, sends teams of scientists into Area X to investigate its weirdness. Because it's really weird. There are creatures that moan in the night, spore-spewing/message-writing plants and pulsating, possibly living buildings that don't show up on maps. Explorers from previous expeditions come back from Area X placid and hollow or don't come back at all. Add in that not all the expedition members are on the same page, and we've set the stage for a LOST-esque creepfest.

Our protagonist, the expedition's biologist, is pretty weird herself. We never learn her name, because the Southern Reach doesn't do names. As we explore Area X alongside her, we learn about her past—her inattentive parents, her troubled relationship with her husband (who previously went to Area X and came back an empty husk), and her seeming disinterest in connecting with anyone. I found her detachment from the situation fascinating. Instead of visceral, emotional reactions to the pure WTFery that's happening around her, she waxes logical, perhaps philosophical. We get statements like:
"Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective—even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for truth." (pg. 8)
Then,  not long after a terrifying, agonizing encounter with one of Area X's inhabitants (vague because spoilers), she says:
"I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don't have real answers, it is because we still don't know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish." (pg. 192-193)
I'm hesitant to share much more, because I feel like this is a book that defies summary. It's also only part one of a larger story, so it's difficult to analyze it on its own. I did feel that it occasionally got too caught up in its own grander ideas; it was less "What's going on in Area X?" and more "What does what's going on mean?" I don't mind getting meta, but sometimes it gets in the way of the thread of a story.

All in all, this book was (you guessed it) weird, and I'm excited to see where VanderMeer takes Area X and the Southern Reach next. I would recommend it for people who enjoy supernatural elements and grand philosophizing with their sci-fi.

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  1. This sounds fascinating and, yes, weird. I hope the person returns the next book to the library soon so you can read it!

  2. They finally did! After forever. ;)

    Unfortunately, Book #2 did not rock my socks off (we're talking 2.5-territory). Still working on #3 because I'm invested enough now to want to know what happens. I'll be sure to post reviews when I'm through!

  3. You're making me want to read this again!!

  4. I want to read this book! (I didn't read your review(s) but wanted to add that line from the latest judgement, "Poor Jeff Vandermeer" - for some reason I now have to say that every time I see this trilogy mentioned.)

  5. "Poor Jeff VanderMeer" indeed, based on how I felt about the second and third books in this trilogy. :(

    I'd say that this review isn't spoiler-y (though the one I posted today definitely is) if you want to read it!