The Southern Reach Trilogy, Parts 2 and 3: Authority and Acceptance

March 23, 2015

This is not a particularly positive review. Julianne, you may want to avert your gaze. To everyone else, avert your gaze if light spoilers bother you.

After waiting for what felt like an eternity but was actually a totally reasonable amount of time, I got my hands on the last two-thirds of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. I came home giddy that night. This was gonna be great! I'd heard that the second book was a bit slow, but no matter—I was finally going to find out what the heck is going on in Area X! (If you haven't read my post about Annihilation, you might want to check it out for context.)

And then... Authority happened. Ugh. It had such promise initially. A blurb on the back cover described it as "a spy novel given the same dark lacquer [as Annihilation]," and I was totally on board to watch the Southern Reach's new director, Control, bust some weirdo mysteries wide open. There were some interesting bits along the way (and that climax, my goodness), but mostly I felt like I was watching some guy with serious mommy issues bumble his way through a stagnating government agency mummified in red tape. Of course a lot of what's going on in Area X would be classified or otherwise opaque, but wow, does it make for some boring reading:
"The Southern Reach called the last expedition the twelfth, but Control had counted the rings, and it was actually the thirty-eighth iteration, including six "eleventh" expeditions. The hagiography was clear: After the truth fifth expedition, the Southern Reach had gotten stuck like a jammed CD, with nearly the same repetitions. Expedition 5 became X.5.A, followed by X.5.B and X.5.C, all the way to an X.5.G." - pgs. 114-115, Authority
And so on. All things considered, the second installment was a bit of a snoozefest. By the end, though, I was still invested—Control had found Ghost Bird (the biologist's doppelgänger), and the two might have made their way to Area X. Things were about to get more interesting! ... Right?

Well, kind of. Acceptance definitely was at the beginning, since we started hearing the story from a few different perspectives (Control, Ghost Bird, the former Southern Reach director, and the lighthouse keeper). Around page 100 or so, I started finding reasons to put the book down. I was traveling and couldn't focus, or I wasn't in the mood for something so meandering. Finally, I had a quiet moment over coffee to try again. After I read the same paragraph for what had to be the sixth time and my mind was still wandering, I paused to reconsider. Why was I still trying to read this? Did I really care about what was going on in Area X anymore? And the answer, unfortunately, was a resounding no. I even stopped flipping through the remaining pages for spoilers—I was that disengaged. I DNFed at page 171 and haven't looked back since.

Despite my failure to get pulled into the story, VanderMeer has some really great moments, particularly in setting his stage:
"The long, wide swathe of green that was the island at that distance was made irregular and disheveled-looking by the few tall oaks and pines that, along with the shattered spire of the lighthouse, broke through the skyline. Trapped between: the calm motionless sky and the always restless sea, the island shimmering in the middle distance, surrounded by distortion as if it emanated heat. Sliding in between them from either side, rangy, scruffy islets with pine trees contorted low upon them, the silhouettes of these outposts extended by the rough gray-black line of oyster beds shot through with a startling iridescent white from dead shells pried open by birds." - p. 112, Acceptance
Would it have worked for me at another point? It's entirely possible, especially if I hadn't been traveling and coming up on a due date without an option to renew. A couple of days after my decision to DNF, I'm still not regretting it, so I don't think I'll be making another effort.

I think this trilogy could be fantastic for someone with significantly more patience and concentration to devote to it. It's mysterious, cerebral, and anything but straightforward. I hope you get more out of it than I did!

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  1. Nooo I'm so sad. I knew that Authority was trouble, but I'm sorry Acceptance didn't grasp your interest. I absolutely loved it. Sorry for leading you astray!!

  2. I still want to read these, even though you didn't finish. I need to know how it ends!