Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Four years ago, our book club read the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, of which Acceptance is the final installment. That first book, Annihilation, was really short, and felt frustratingly puzzling, with on actual resolution, or explanation of much of anything. My wife commented that it felt as if it were written with the screenplay in mind. It turns out that they did make a movie out of the first book - or at least stole the name and a few ideas, because the movie seems to have little to do with the book or the trilogy. That’s Hollywood for you.
Two years ago, I read the second book, Authority, which answered some questions, but raised a whole lot more. Thus, the questions still felt mostly unresolved. Also, that book was set primarily in the bureaucracy that is investigating “Area X” - the unexplained anomaly that has taken over the northern Florida coast. Thus, the mystery involved bureaucratic absurdity, secret keeping, backstabbing, and only nibbled at the edges of the actual mystery of Area X. It was, in any case, quite a bit longer, so I was able to understand why it wasn’t combined with the first book. Okay, mostly. I still think all three books should have been in one book.
Finally, I got around to reading Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy. Having done so, my opinion of the trilogy has significantly improved. I think I can see what the author was trying to do, and I think that taken together it is a satisfying read, and a work of art.
Just to recap a bit:
In the first book, we find out that a mysterious “Area X” has enveloped a coastal area - Vandermeer based it on the “lost coast” of Florida - the northern panhandle area, which he explored as a youth. Exactly what Area X is is the big mystery. It seems as if nature has completely reclaimed an area plagued by environmental destruction (in real life, toxic waste was illegally buried there, leading to cancer spikes and worse.) But there is also a barrier that keeps people from entering except through this one portal, and the boundary is invisible until you bump up against it. Also, electronics and other advanced technologies do not work inside, so you have to use paper and pencil. So, we have no idea what Area X is, how it got there, or what to do about it.
The story in the first book is that of a woman we know only as “The Biologist.” She is not only an unreliable narrator, but the author deliberately removes as much “personhood” from her as reasonably possible. In fact, we never learn her name, even though she is the central character of the first and third books. She is a member of the Twelfth Expedition to Area X. (Except there were a lot more than twelve, as we come to find out later.) The members are not given each others’ names, just professions, and they are sent into Area X with no clear instructions, and are told mostly to write stuff down in their journals. Except that for unknown reasons, when teams return, they have left their journals behind, they appear to have had their personalities wiped, and they all die of cancer in a few months.
We do learn a bit about the features of Area X, though. There is a lighthouse, which turns out to have a basement area filled with the journals from past expeditions. And there is a weird pit with a spiral staircase leading down, which the expedition members refer to as “The Tower,” because of some psychological feeling that it is just an inverted tower. As you descend the stairs, there is a fungus-like substance growing on the walls, that is constantly writing out words - what sounds like a disjointed fundamentalist hellfire sermon.
The first book ends without a resolution. It just…stops.
The second book centers on “Control,” a man sent in to take over and clean up the Southern Reach - the mysterious government agency that is supposed to be investigating Area X. The previous director mysteriously disappeared. As in, just vanished. As we find out, she secretly joined the Twelfth Expedition, and never returned. We also find out that she held a lot of secrets. Her supposed name wasn’t her real name, she was dying of cancer, and she had some sort of connection to Area X that a few higher-ups concealed.
We do eventually find out that Control is the nickname of John Rodriquez, and that his mother and maternal grandfather were part of a CIA-like agency, and his mother still works there in some secret role. Which is how Control got the job, although he doesn’t find that out until late in the book.
Some of the secrets about the area and its history are revealed, but precious few. And many of the secrets are far more confusing than not.
It is in the third book that enough of the mystery is unveiled to give some sense of satisfaction, although Vandermeer chooses to leave much of it still shrouded. The reason this works is that we never get a chance to see things from outside the human perspective. Area X - whatever it is (I won’t reveal the limited secrets that are told) is not something human minds can fully comprehend. It is in some way outside of time and space as we experience them.
The second book ends with Control following Ghost Bird (a replicant of the Biologist from the first book) into a secret portal to Area X - they jump into the ocean in Maine, and resurface in Area X at the beginning of the third book.
Unlike the first two books, the third one is told from multiple perspectives, has multiple threads that take place at completely different times, and these are all mixed up so that the resolution of all of them comes near the end.
So, we get the story of Saul, the lighthouse keeper. The son of a fundamentalist preacher, he follows that path (it is his sermon that is on the walls), until he can no longer reconcile his beliefs with the fact that he is gay. He withdraws to the lighthouse, and lives quietly, until these two hippie sorts, calling themselves the “Seance and Science Brigade” invade his lighthouse searching for something. He also makes friends with a young girl, Gloria, who lives in the area. Things start to go weird, though - I will spare the spoilers, but we learn something of how Area X came to be.
We also get the story of the former director of the Southern Reach - her prior trips to Area X, her secrets, and her final days as part of the Twelfth Expedition.
The final thread is split between the points of view of Control and Ghost Bird, and this reveals much of what we learn about how Area X functions.
In retrospect, having read the whole thing, I think there are some fascinating themes. The first is hinted at in the titles of the book. There are two approaches to Area X: Control, and Acceptance. Those who seek to understand so they can control end up annihilated in some way or another. Those who accept the loss of control, and explore to learn and experience, rather than control, are able to live in harmony with Area X. And the thing is, no matter which approach you choose, you still find some degree of assimilation, some loss of self.
Another theme is one that has become common in modern science fiction - the idea of nature taking back control from humanity. The thing is, in Vandermeer’s vision, this isn’t a case of malevolence at all. It is mere indifference. Nature - and Area X - do not really, in the end, take much notice of humans. This is what I think climate change deniers do not fully grasp. The earth can and will survive anything. Life is more fragile, but the most fragile forms of life are always those at the top. An “Area X” of our own is entirely plausible, where humanity creates its own extinction - but the roaches and archea will probably be fine.
The human relationships are less important in this book than in some - we get tantalized with the occasional snippet of back story, but so much remains opaque. What we do see reinforces the idea that demands of control - of authority - invariably leads to destruction, whether it is the controlling fathers of the female characters, or the controlling mother of Control, or the utter FUBAR the power games at the Southern Reach make of everything.
Vandermeer has said that two things inspired this trilogy. First was the Lost Coast itself. The second was a weird dream he had, which he turned into the “Tower” - those stairs leading endlessly downward, the writing on the walls, the idea of “The Crawler,” some sentient fungal life form. That’s a hell of a dream, but totally plausible. That scene makes a lot more sense now.
One final word about the books: it took a little while for me to warm to Vandermeer’s writing, mostly because of the frustration of not knowing so much. But if you are willing to accept the mysteries, rather than seek to understand, the writing itself is actually really beautiful and precise. I would put it on the high end of science fiction writing in terms of the use of language and description. Vandermeer clearly loved the nature of the Lost Coast, and the passages where the characters observe Area X really come to life.
The bottom line is that if I were to do it again, I would read all three back to back - they really should have been one book. Would it have been a long book? Yes. But not as long as, say, The Wings of the Dove. And of course it would probably have meant lower profits for the publisher. (Boo hoo.) But it would have made more sense as a coherent work - and I suspect more people, including other members of our book club, would have finished the whole thing.