The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) by Jeff VanderMeer

29/08/14, New Statesman

In the remote southern coastal area of an unnamed country a bizarre and baffling phenomenon called Area X has manifested itself. It can be entered and exited from only one point of egress in an invisible border. The shadowy para-governmental body, the Southern Reach, set up to investigate Area X, sends out numerous expeditions over time to comprehend it but members of these expeditions return with their minds blank, as if strangers within their own lives, then die unnaturally swiftly of aggressive cancers. Annihilation, the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s astonishing Southern Reach Trilogy, lands us straight into the heart of things with the twelfth (and final) expedition’s journey into Area X. Narrated by the unnamed biologist who is one of the team members (all unnamed), Annihilation is a genuinely frightening book, but also narratively and architecturally a brave one, since VanderMeer gets the ‘encounter with the alien’, normally the stuff of heart-pounding denouements, out of the way with the first instalment.

As if to spare us the intensity, the second volume, Authority, transports readers away from the epicentre, this time to the HQ of Southern Reach itself, and lifts the curtains on the workings of this sinister outfit. Its former director met a grisly yet mysterious end in Annihilation. Seen mostly from the point of view of a newly appointed director called Control (real name: John Rodriguez), and concentrating largely on his interiority, Authority sounds one of the most important chords in the trilogy, namely, a kind of epistemological scepticism, of an acknowledgement of the limits and sheer bluntness and infantility of human understanding and reasoning when confronted with something utterly uncategorisable like Area X. As one character notes, ‘A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle. … How do you know if something is out of the ordinary when you don’t know if your instruments would register the progressions?’ By the time Control fumbles towards a vague notion that Area X may be sentient and ‘smarter, more insidious, more resourceful’ than humans could conceive of, that, in fact, instead of being a puzzle to be solved, it was beginning to solve humans instead, the Southern Reach comes to a spectacular end.

All the features in Annihilation – the densely imagined and extraordinarily rendered landscape of Area X with its two lighthouses, one of them in a tiny uninhabited island off the coast; something called ‘a topographical anomaly’, which houses a life-form called the Crawler; the lush, wild ecosystem, reverting to a pristine state and flushing out all traces of manmade effluents and toxins; the mysteries centred around the lighthouses – recur in the final book, Acceptance, with increasing density of meaning and revelations. The imaginative daring and reach with which VanderMeer has invented and executed a concept like Area X is breathtaking, especially in an explosive twist halfway through Acceptance that effortlessly moves the story from the local, earthbound to the cosmic.

Simultaneous with the forward propulsion of the story is an equally masterful looping backwards in time to the central characters’ pasts and, crucially, to the possible origins of Area X and an explanation of its nature. The braiding of past and present is impeccable, a staggering feat of narrative architecture. What is the ‘brightness’ that people who have visited Area X feel that is infecting them from the inside? What is the nature of the metamorphosis that the place wreaks on humans? What kind of a biosphere is Area X? Everything begins to fall into place but in such intricate, complex and surprising ways that the explanations and revelations do not exhaustively explain and reveal, leaving a surplus that always remains outside the reach of understanding. This makes the trilogy even more powerful and echoing. ‘You could know the what of something forever and never discover the why’, as one of the protagonists thinks.

That great theme of scepticism, of humans as ‘incredibly blunt instruments’, now blooms into a flower of terrible beauty as we come closer to comprehending Area X. As a character explains, ‘that whatever’s causing [Area X] can manipulate the genome, work miracles of mimicry and biology … knows what to do with molecules and membranes, can peer through things, can surveil, and then withdraw. That, to it, a smartphone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature.’

Mentions have been made of the influence of Lovecraft on the trilogy – and this is entirely correct, especially in the presence of a strong element of bio-horror and weird, metamorphic biological forms in the books – but I think the real inspirations that provide VanderMeer with his philosophical dynamo are Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1971) and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1977) (both adapted, in watershed instances of twentieth-century cinema, by Andrei Tarkovsky, as Solaris and Stalker, respectively). Just as the ocean that covers the surface of Solaris and can ‘read’ the innermost thoughts and memories of the men in the space-capsule orbiting it, or the Zone in Roadside Picnic which, with magisterial indifference, brings humans short and sharp against their miniscule moral and cognitive stature, Area X is ‘something peering through what we think of as reality’ to put human life and achievements in the vaster context of the universe.

The moral energy that gives the Southern Reach Trilogy its profundity is not dissimilar to the one that powers those earlier works: it is the admission of how we are bound by our own view of consciousness, entwined with an appeal for a cognitive ethics. How should we be when faced with phenomena we don’t or cannot understand? Can we imagine morality on the scale of the human species as a whole? What is the moral imperative of the imagination? To use a fossil-era dualism, I hope the trilogy will come to be seen not only as the instant sci-fi classic it is but also as Literature.