Recently, I read Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.
A film, based on the first first book of the trilogy, Annihilation had just been released. The trailer was so intriguing that I decided to read the book.
Annihilation, the first book of VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, is a fascinating read.
Area X includes a stretch of the Florida Coast, an island, a lighthouse and a sinister ecosystem. The Southern Reach is a research facility just outside the “Shimmer.” Focused on determining the nature of the threat posed by Area X, they continue to study it. Area X has existed, unknown to the public for decades.
An opaque barrier encloses Area X and it destroys anything—human or animal—that tries to enter.
Testing the barrier for openings, soldiers drive hundreds of unfortunate rabbits into the mysterious border. Some rabbits are torn apart; others disappear into Area X. Finally a “door” is discovered and a series of teams goes through. Almost no one returns. Those who do make it back have little or no memory of what they encountered.
Annihilation, the first of the trilogy, is a first person narrative. Identified only as the “biologist,”
the narrator is part of a four-member team that enters Area X. She learned of Area X when her soldier husband, whom she had presumed dead, returns to her. He had taken a top-secret assignment. His long absence meant something had gone wrong and he wasn’t coming back. When he returns, his affect is blank and confused. He is unable to remember what happened. In a matter of weeks, he dies of cancer. She wants to know what happened. What caused his death?
The biologist is, to say the least, self-contained.
In fact, when it comes to the how much influence her fellow humans have on her, the biologist is self-shrink-wrapped. On the other hand, when it comes to “Nature” and its myriad of habitats, she’s all touchy-feely. A mossy pond with lots of bugs, amphibians, animals and reptiles is her idea of great getaway. For the biologist, Area X, with apologies to all those poor rabbits, is Wonderland and she is Alice. Her account of what she experiences as she explores Area X is compelling and hypnotic.
Like “the biologist,” the other three are identified as their professions—psychologist, anthropologist and surveyor.
Names are verboten. From the beginning, team members are suspicious of each other. Other than where to go, what to do next and where to camp, there is little communication.
Looming in the distance is a lighthouse, thought to be the heart of what was wrong with Area X. At dusk she hears something moaning.
The lush, sinister landscape, crawling with strange insects (velvet ants?), a place where animals seem coldly observant, leads the team to an anomaly, something not detailed on the map, which was derived from satellite views and the limited information provided by survivors of Area X.
The team decides to explore the “anomaly,” a circular stone pit.
Stairs descend into the darkness below where the walls are covered with a strange biblical verse. Tiny plants and moss form the letters. While closely examining the writing on the walls , the biologist is exposed and contaminated. The result is she gains a heightened awareness and becomes sensitive to her surroundings.
Later, she returns to the “anomaly” and descends into the darkness.
What she encounters at the bottom of those stairs propels the reader into a dreamlike landscape of distorted reality and shifting timelines. The biologist’s alienation from her fellow humans makes her the perfect vessel for the strange nectar produced by Area X.
This book is a compelling narrative; I simply couldn’t stop reading, so I didn’t.
Authority is the second book in the “Trilogy,” Unlike Alienation, Authority is written in third person. “Control,” identifies a man, John Rodriguez, an outsider who is called in by the “Director” of the research facility. Control will investigate the reappearance of the “Biologist” and discover the truth of what occurred during the mission.
The tone of Authority is straight out of The X Files.
It’s rife with paranoia and conspiracy theories. We do learn more about the history of Area X and those who were there at the beginning. Like Alienation, reality and time shifts as “Control” realizes that his name no longer defines him. As he struggles, Area X draws closer.
Like Annihilation and Authority, I found Acceptance engrossing and entertaining.
But at the end of the Acceptance, I had still had more question than answers. From the beginning, when reading Alienation, I kept trying to define the why, the process that led to Area X. Throughout Acceptance, characters struggle to do the same. Through the characters’ search for answers, VanderMeer offers hints now and then, pieces of a puzzle that fail to define Area X clearly.
Like Lovecraft, VanderMeer’s Area X conveys something that regards us as disposable. It’s sinister and unknowable.
As far as a summer read, if you like science fiction rendered in rich, complex prose with a huge dollop of enigma, I recommend Area X, The Southern Reach Trilogy. But be warned, like a summer tan, long after you finish The Southern Reach Trilogy, the effects of Area X may linger.