Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Authority is the second, and Acceptance is the third. 
     Area X—a remote and lush terrain—has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer. 
     This is the twelfth expedition. 
     Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. 
     They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything. 
     After the disastrous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the Southern Reach—the secret agency that monitors these expeditions—is in disarray. In Authority, John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve. And the consequences will spread much further than that. 
     It is winter in Area X in Acceptance. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting. The mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.
I know that's a super long description, but I wanted to include a bit of information about all three books and the only way to do that was to use the description from Area X, a collection of all three books.

It's not every day that you come across a work of genre fiction, especially science fiction, that's more focused on writing and characterization than it is on plot or action.  This one definitely succeeds in the quality of writing category and particularly in the area of character development.  I'd argue that the point of the books is not the crazy goings-on in Area X but how each character responds and changes as a result of his or her experiences.  I think it would also be very easy to make a case for Area X itself as a character, as opposed to just a setting.  Incredibly well done and a pleasure to read.

Entertainment Value
This, I think, is where things will be a little bit trickier and less amazing across the board.  I, personally, was thoroughly entertained by each book and found Annihilation and Acceptance particularly difficult to put down.  That said, I don't think that this is a series that will appeal to all science fiction fans or to all literary fiction fans.  Unlike the typical science fiction book, this one isn't as focused on action and plot movement, which may make for a slower read.  It also doesn't wrap every mystery up in a neat bow at the end - there are lots of unanswered questions.  In terms of literary fiction lovers, I think the complete weirdness may not appeal.  This series is absolutely bizarre, full of moments that will just completely jolt you and, for the reader who prefers realism, may cause a few too many eyebrow lifts.

That said, I found both the elements of literary fiction and science fiction to be perfectly combined into an absolutely engrossing series.  I wasn't bothered at all by the questions that remained at the end of the book - they've remained on my mind in the days after I finished Acceptance, which is always a good thing.  It's the kind of mystery that lead me to seek out other reviews and blogs covering the series to see how others interpreted the parts that aren't spelled out explicitly.  I love when an author can capture my interest that fully and then let my imagination do the work.  I also enjoyed the craziness of the plot itself and was absolutely enthralled with the world of Area X.

For me, this is the perfect combination of literary and genre fiction.  It had the elements that I love from literary fiction combined perfectly with the elements I love from science fiction.  The second book, Authority, read a bit slow for me, but it reflected what was happening at that point in the story.  I recommend this to those who can enjoy a crazy setting/plot with elements of the bizarre, but who also enjoy quality writing and don't need to have every question answered.

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