This recent series by Jeff VanderMeer came to my attention via a friend who I don’t normally associate with prose recommendations, SF or otherwise. Visiting his apartment in the days before this year’s MIT Mystery Hunt, I spotted these three small, strikingly illustrated softcover volumes on his coffee table, and he corrected my dismissive misconception that the series sets up Yet Another Post-Apocalypse story. Intrigued, I requested the first book from the library, where it arrived just in time for the holiday weekend.
I quite enjoyed that book, Annihilation, also the shortest and the easiest to read of the trilogy. Almost too easy: while I planned to spend the Saturday of Mystery Hunt Weekend wandering familiar and missed neighborhoods around Cambridge — my friends and my partner all hunt, I merely provide moral support — I instead spent much of the time in my hotel room, wholly engrossed in this book. It had been quite a while since a novel made me lose time like that. At dinnertime on Saturday, feeling self-conscious about missing social opportunities, I relocated to a bar and read there instead.
I can easily recommend this book, especially those who like subtle horror fiction. It really does feel a lot like the spirit of At the Mountains of Madness, one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most accessible (and least embarrassing) works, poured into a wholly modern vessel. We can easily see the differences on the surface: for one thing, every speaking role among the story’s science expedition belongs to a woman, a conceit I rather imagine would have found itself unpublishable in the 1930s.
Looking more deeply, consider that Lovecraft, writing when science still grappled with the negligible influence and unremarkable position of Earth within the universal scale of both space and time, populated his stories with cosmic horrors to express the novel terror of insignificance. Annihilation takes place instead against an oily mix of government incompetence, slow but inexorable environmental catastrophe, and a population utterly desensitized to both. The preternatural encounters the book’s first-person narrator describes suggest a shift in the workings of the planet itself, less from self-defense against its human population and more utterly uncaring about it; rolling over in its slumber, heedless what clings to its back.
While I also enjoyed the following two books, I did not like them nearly as much as the first. Authority, strangely, often felt like the story of a man browsing through a fan-wiki of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Where the first book channeled and rejuvenated the soul of an 80-year-old seminal science fiction work, the second feels like it owes more to the TV series Lost. While pondering his imperfect knowledge of the first book’s events, the main character thinks about his mom a lot, and receives frequent phone calls from a mysterious voice. At one point he opens a door and finds a map of the previous book’s territory painted on the wall behind it.
And then Acceptance knits it up in a way that somewhat reminded me of Tim Powers’ Earthquake Weather, which took two tangentially related previous novels and shuffled their worlds together to create a mutual sequel. This wasn’t quite so extreme, of course; the three Southern Reach books do flow, linearly, one into the other, even if their tones and voices shift so radically in between. The last book does further explore and unpack characters and concepts from the first two novels in logically and emotionally satisfying ways.
But, in the end, I did feel like I had read more of a remix or a director’s cut than a conclusion. The final hundred pages of Acceptance include a surprise cameo of a bona fide Lovecraft monster (albeit cast into an appropriate new role) and an ultimate ending that strongly evoked part of Lost’s own finale.
Ultimately, I feel satisfied with having read the whole series, even though in retrospect I would have felt perfectly content with reading only the first novel. It stands as a great model for evocative fantastical writing that doesn’t need to explain every mystery it presents in order to tell a meaningful and memorable story.