Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy

By Jeff Vandermeer
FSG Originals, ISBN: 978-0374261177
Hardback, 608 pages. © 2014

Area X, a region of the Forgotten Coast cut off from the rest of the world by an environmental anomaly, has swallowed all vestiges of human habitation in its verdant overgrowth. No one knows what caused it, or why eleven expeditions sent by the mysterious agency Central to explore and map it have failed so completely. One team commits mass suicide. Another’s members turn their guns on each other. Yet another comes back changed, shells of their former selves who remember nothing of their experience. They report only on Area X’s beauty and tranquility and claim they saw nothing out of the ordinary.

For the twelfth expedition, Southern Reach (Central’s satellite facility located just outside Area X) has pulled together an all-female team: a biologist, a surveyor, an archeologist, and a psychiatrist. All have been heavily trained. Grilled in what to expect. Each is given specific orders. But nothing could prepare them for what they find inside the barrier, when human rules no longer seem to apply, life forms defy description, and nothing is quite what it seems. The fight to survive is on, and there is no guarantee that any of them will make it out alive.

I am taking a bit of a different direction in reviewing all three of these books together, instead of separately, because I think that’s truly how they should be read, back-to-back like one huge story.

All of Annihilation (Book 1) takes place in Area X, and is seen from the Biologist’s first-person point of view. Her attitude of withdrawn hostility is the primary reason she was chosen for this mission—that, and the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition, all of whom died of cancer six months after returning changed from Area X. She wants answers, no matter the cost.

Authority (Book 2) switches to third person in the POV of a character we know as Control, who has been brought in to Southern Reach to fill in for the missing Director. His label couldn’t be more ironic, since from start to finish, Control has none. He, too, is searching for answers among the closed doors and resistant crew of the Southern Reach, as well as among the piles of notes left behind by the Director. Control digs through layer after layer of mystery in his search, but is not prepared to confront the results.

Acceptance (Book 3) pulls all the threads together through the eyes of the Biologist, Control, the Director, and the Lighthouse Keeper. With tidbits from each POV and flashbacks from before the time of the anomaly, Vandermeer leads the reader closer to the truth behind Area X, peeling back the enigma to reveal a hint of its origin.

Each character is deep, fully fleshed out, complete with flaws and weaknesses. None of them are especially pleasant, yet all pulled me in. My favorite character was the biologist, perhaps because I could relate to her love of the natural world. But I ended up liking them all, for different reasons. Every character had a pivotal role in this story. There were no loose threads in Vandermeer’s tapestry.

There is no fast-paced anything in this series. Drama is totally psychological and plenty creepy. Area X and anyone who comes into contact with it, even in the most remote sense, takes on a sheen of weirdness that expands as you go. Few characters are named, and even those don’t come into the story until the reader is deeply involved in this huge mystery. Much of the subtext in this story weaves from tendrils of human uncertainty, paranoia, isolation, and the search for logical answers. If there is redemption, of a sort, in doggedly throwing no-holds-barred effort at something that defies resolution, the characters in this trilogy have earned their share.

The Southern Reach trilogy is not light reading. The New Yorker compared Vandermeer’s writing to Henry David Thoreau, and I can see why. His storytelling is as lush as the natural world inside Area X. Descriptions drag you so deeply into the scenes that you might want to keep your citronella oil handy to avoid bug bites. The narrative style, while beautiful, is dense, thought-provoking, at times even profound. The author wraps the story around you like vines creeping up the walls and through the foundations of a structure. It gets inside you, leaving its imagery to linger long after the last page is turned. I read in every available moment—at the gym on the treadmill, while waiting for a doctor appointment, during my half-hour lunch break—but I think it would have coalesced more cohesively if I’d read it in more lengthy segments. Still, once I began to read, it was very hard to put down.

While I’ve seen the Area X story defined as New-Weird, taken together all three of these books also fit neatly into a sort of eco-sci-fi genre. Nature is a character in Her own right, one which we can only glimpse through the foliage. And for me, that was part of the allure of this tale. Something is going on inside Area X. But what? Vandermeer does not fully explain, though he does seed the fertile ground of Area X with an ample supply of hints. In the end, we are left with loads of mystery and space to form our own conclusions.

If you are a reader who wants all the questions answered by the last page, Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is probably not for you. However, if you don’t mind—indeed, if you enjoy—mystery that trusts your own intelligence for resolution, this binge-reading experience is definitely for you.

(As a side note, the movie “Annihilation” is a decent adaptation of the entire trilogy, though of course much is left out. No two- to three-hour movie could hope to encompass the enormous, multi-layered story in Vandermeer’s pages. There’s simply too much material. Instead, the director has reenvisioned the story, repositioning some of the clues from the second and third books into the scenery of the first book, and bringing the whole thing to a sort of uncomfortable resolution at the end. It’s worth watching, but even here there is not a lot of fast-paced action. The creepiness factor is high, though, as is the deeply disturbing psychological thrill. If you go for a good creepy movie with moments that get your blood pumping faster, you’ll want to check it out on Amazon Prime.)