Southern Reach #3: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 15 April, 2018

I have several friends who read Annihilation in anticipation of the movie, but lacked the stamina and fortitude to continue the series. After they found out that I was reading the second, I became the Designated Reader – in charge of finishing the series, and reporting back with a condensed summary.

All well and good, but the second was such a slog that I wasn’t particularly eager to start to the third. But with an impending move, I wanted to pack up my copy – something I couldn’t do until it had been read, lest I commit myself to not reading it until who knows when.

I liked it much better than AuthorityAuthority, I think, suffered from middle book in a trilogy syndrome – the first book’s job is to set the scene, the third book’s job is to deliver a climax, but the second book is just about moving all the pieces into position. It’s hard to make that interesting. This was made worse by the fact that Authority was so much longer than Annihilation, and chose to focus on a character who just isn’t all that interesting.

This issue is fixed in Acceptance by splitting up the narrative. Now, page time is shared between Control, Ghost Bird, the former director/Psychologist, and the lighthouse keeper. Control still isn’t interesting, but his chapters are spread out, and he’s always in the presence of Ghost Bird, who is a far more interesting character. Good choices, all around.

I really enjoyed the lighthouse keeper’s story. Flashbacks (if that’s what there were – I suspect Area X is meant to have some kind of time looping) aren’t usually a good way to resolve plot mysteries, especially when the device isn’t introduced until the third book, but I just really enjoyed the character of Saul Evans. I would have liked to see a lot more of him, actually. In fact, I think it would have worked well to give him the second book, and have it all be a flashback to S&SB and the beginnings of Area X, and then combine Control’s adventures in the Southern Reach and his journey into Area X with Ghost Bird to make up the third book. Maybe. Or just write Control out entirely and keep only characters who are introduced in Annihilation.

In between Authority and Acceptance, I saw the movie. Other than being about a biologist on a team sent into Area X, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book(s). The hypnotism is almost entirely absent (which makes the Psychologist’s scream of “annihilation” at the end entirely meaningless), and they did the same adaptation change that Stalker did – taking a story that doesn’t actually have a whole lot of action in it and adding in KILLER CROCS and KILLER BEARS and KILLER DOPPLEGANGERS.

But I was surprised by how much of Acceptance they had actually stuck in there. Not a whole lot, since the stories had diverged rather significantly by that point, but more than I was expecting. Particularly as it relates to the Psychologist.

My overview of the whole series would be that it relies a bit too much on the mystery, which wears a little thing in patches. But the narrative tone matches the themes of the story perfectly – the writing is slow, plodding, sometimes a little repetitive. It’s almost hypnotic. The mystery does sustain the first book, but really suffers in the second. The third book reveals just enough answers to feel satisfying, but not so many as to feel cheap. There’s still plenty of room for interpretation.

Some characters, like the Biologist, the lighthouse keeper, the Psychologist, and Lowrie, are very strong and interesting. But I found some, like Control and his whole family, to be utterly tedious. Jackie Severance kept popping up, and I think I was meant to perceive her as a looming menace, but she lacked presence. I never really felt like I got a sense of her as a distinct entity – she always seemed to just be there when the author needed an extra character.

I appreciated some of the looping (Whitby’s mouse, the room with all the journals in the lighthouse, the photograph of the lighthouse keeper), but I would have liked more of that. It seemed, at times, that story elements were only added when writing the second or third book, rather than intended from the beginning. Realising that it’s a gamble to do so, I wish that more of Annihilation‘s mysteries directly related to the events and answers we got later on.

I can’t think of anyone I would recommend these books to, but if you’ve read Annihilation and enjoyed the writing and tone, it’s worth continuing.

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Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

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