Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction has always been entrancingly, engagingly, enthusiastically weird, a winning combination of mimesis and the fantastical that privileges neither component: perhaps the very definition of that mode categorized as the “New Weird” and exemplified most famously by the groundbreaking work of China Miéville. VanderMeer’s stories and novels raise common genre tropes to higher levels of artistry. Prior to this year, his main accomplishment has been the set of stories and novels that explore his realm of Ambergris, a city and dominion where the untoward and the uncanny manifest in a thousand unexpected ways.
VanderMeer is also a critic and scholar of fantastika, and when he and his wife, Ann, assembled their vast anthology The Weird, one felt that one of its more personal functions was to serve as a syllabus of Jeff VanderMeer’s influences, a roadmap of his aspirations. In his newest project, the Southern Reach trilogy (all three books released this year, all the better to induce Netflix-style binge reading in an increasingly insatiable public), we see indeed the product of his wide-ranging, intelligent anatomizing and assimilation of this vast global corpus.
The Southern Reach books exhibit a universality of surreal storytelling, a primal template of weirdness. Aside from a few references to modern technology, they could have been written 100 or 200 years ago. If we were presented with some edition of these books as anonymous texts and told they issued from the pen of Serbian fantasist Zoran Živković, or Argentinian fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, or Czech fantasist Franz Kafka, or Italian fantasist Tommaso Landolfi, we would not be surprised. There is something eternal and catholic about the happenings and characters here, qualities not necessarily at the fore in the Ambergris series. Given the quick serial publication of the trilogy, and the desire to discuss the whole arc, this reviewer finds it hard not to commit some spoilers. Caveat lector.
First, the simple yet boundless scenario. Some thirty years prior to the events of the first book, an interzone known as Area X manifested itself. A portion of the planet’s surface, a stretch of wooded, marshy coastline in an unnamed country, went nonlinear, disturbed, transreal. Inside this district, strange creatures roamed and the laws of nature were not as we knew them. Now, such a conceit has a rich lineage in SF. One can point to Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze and “The Way to Spook City.” To Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon. To Lucius Shepard’s “Bound for Glory.” To Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. To Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. To Alastair Reynolds’s Diamond Dogs. To Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Even the straightforward tales of exploration of a Big Dumb Object, some place alien yet still subject to consensus physics — a Ringworld or a Rama or an Orbitsville — come close to VanderMeer’s scenario. But the Southern Reach trilogy approaches nearer to the sheer oneiric magnitude of David Lindsay’s cult fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus or H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness instead — though its style and worldview depart thoroughly from either.
Annihilation begins as an account of an expedition to Area X, after all the other forays have ended in failure. Four women — designated only as the anthropologist, the biologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor — form the party. Our narrator is the biologist, and she recounts in clinical yet not utterly dispassionate prose her encounters with the various unsettling forces in Area X, most notably a being dubbed the Crawler, who seems engaged in a kind of cosmic poiesis. Helping to flesh out her motives and character, she gives us her touching personal back-story as well. Unfortunately, the mental strains contingent on Area X pit woman against deranged woman, until only the biologist is left alive, depositing her report at the ruins of a lighthouse before departing on an endless odyssey deeper into the mystery.
VanderMeer’s writing, exhibiting a paradoxical kind of style, clean-limbed yet baroque, and his fecund imagination ensure that the book is a page-turner, luring the reader into the primacy of a dream. A dream, but not a necessarily a nightmare, since there is always a sense of rightness beyond human ken at work in Area X.
Authority takes up the tale almost immediately on the heels of Annihilation, with a shift of voice to third-person. Some of the members of the expeditions have returned from Area X, each mysteriously but definitively altered. The returnees have been swiftly corralled and isolated by the administrators of the Southern Reach, whose HQ lies on the dangerous border of Area X. There, an interrogator named John Rodriguez — who prefers the nom-de-bureaucracy of “Control” — will debrief them. Control — whose Oedipal back-story also gradually emerges — fixates on our friend the biologist. His interrogation of her falls into a strange dynamic. Is he seducer or seduced, cop or criminal?
Meanwhile, other cabals in the Southern Reach aid and/or stymie Control’s quest. New facts emerge. The pivotal lighthouse was manned by a fellow named Saul Evans, who might have been responsible for the initial Area X eruption. The biologist’s expedition, supposedly the twelfth, was part of a much longer series. The former, missing director of the Southern Reach was cultivating a strange plant in her desk drawer. A state of brooding menace — bureaucratic as much as biological — lingers over the institution, when the crisis arrives: Control escapes sudden disaster, intuitively following the figure of the biologist whose experience seems to have granted her special knowledge of what is to come.
Like the famous disjunction in tone and ambiance between volumes two and three of the Gormenghast trilogy — another paragon of weird fiction embraced by VanderMeer — the shift from Annihilation to Authority is calculated to produce cognitive dissonance. The reader feels the organic integrity of the progression, but it’s still a cyborg experience: the flesh of the first book mated to the prosthetic limb of the second.
As one might expect, the concluding volume, Acceptance (and note how the three titles correspond closely to several of the famous Kübler-Ross stages for dealing with death) moves through both of the previous realms, uniting the two spheres in a kind of nebulous but undeniable “as above, so below” relationship.
Four separate timeframes/narrators/milieus carry us through the densely plotted last volume. They alternate in forceful waves. Perhaps first we naturally privilege the “realtime” framework: Control and the biologist — now using her old spousal nickname of “Ghost Bird” — are back in Area X and plunging deeper, their personal interactions evolving to greater intimacy. Soon they will encounter another refugee from the Southern Reach HQ, whose discordant sense of time will reveal more aspects of the anomaly. Secondly, we get to know the experiences of the Southern Reach Director, gone missing during Authority. We see her origins and her machinations prior the start of Annhilation.
Third, and rather importantly, we live with Saul Evans, lighthouse keeper, during the days before Area X blossomed. There are villages here in his untouched world, and inhabitants, a normal life. But this coastline, it eventuates, has always been haunted to some degree, evidenced by members of the cultish ghosthunting “Séance & Science Brigade” setting camp on Failure Island to conduct their investigations. Lastly we return to the first-person diary of the biologist, taking up matters immediately after the closure of Annihilation, when she too visits a changed Failure Island.
Each of these sections features a different gestalt and ambiance. The real-time exploration reminds me of many a moody post-apocalypse tale, such as Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard or John Crowley’s Engine Summer. The Saul Evans section with its creepy ghosthunters and precocious child named Gloria is pure Stephen King. The sections with the Director continue the feel of Authority, while the new diary entries of the biologist extend the affect of Book One.
Eventually, as our multiple climaxes near, the sections begin to shorten and alternate more swiftly, producing a curious narrative effect, as of viewing the rapidly passing faces of a cascading deck of cards. All the threads ultimately wind tightly together, with the real-time frame offering a lovely, satisfying denouement. Ghost Bird’s vision from the middle of the book is borne out:
“Nothing monstruous existed here — only beauty, only the glory of good design, of intricate planning . . . ”
VanderMeer might be slyly referring to his own elaborate architecture and finesse on display in this ambitious, well-wrought trilogy, which carries the reader through a dark labyrinth stocked with terror and glory, to emerge into a new, never-before-seen daylight.