The Southern Reach

Annihilation_coverI’ve recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s science fiction trilogy, ‘The Southern Reach’: ‘Annihilation‘ and ‘Authority‘.  The second book was just released, with the third and final book scheduled to be released later this year.

The series is about a mysterious area of land that has been cut off from the outside world, referred to as Area X.  No one is quite sure exactly how or why it has been cut off.  Entry into Area X appears to be complicated.  There have been multiple expeditions to the area, most of which have ended disastrously, partially because Area X appears to have an affect on the mental health of those who venture into it.

The first book is about the latest expedition to Area X and what the characters find and experience while there.  It serves as our introduction to the geography and major landmarks in the area, and to its core mysteries, including a mysterious lighthouse, an underground tower with creepy writing on the walls that keep showing up in other places, and a mysterious unseen moaning creature wandering in the distance.

The second book takes place back at the headquarters of the agency known as the Southern Reach, whose mission is to try to learn as much as they can about Area X.  The agency has been around for 30 years without making much progress.  As a result, the staff is demoralized and calling the culture dysfunctional is an understatement.  The main protagonist of the second book is a newly appointed interim director who is tasked with coming in and learning more about what is happening both in the agency and in Area X.

There are a number of things about the series that are strange.  For example, in the first book, none of the characters are referred to by their actual names, but by their job functions: psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and the viewpoint character, the biologist.

This continues into the second book, although we do know the protagonist’s name in that book.  He is referred to by his nickname, which just happens to be the creepy sounding “Control”.  Control reports to another character known as The Voice, and it goes on from there.

In many ways, this series reminds me of the TV series Lost, and that’s a mixed blessing.  As in that show, you have a mysterious geographic locale that almost emerges as a type of character.  And like that TV series, I find myself intrigued about what might be going on, what the cause of the mysterious situation is.  But also like that series, I often find myself frustrated by the characters, who often make decisions that seemed designed to prolong the mystery.

Vandermeer’s writing style is also unique.  He has a talent for laying out pages of exposition without appearing to say much, only conveying atmosphere.  When you’re hoping for new clues, that style can be frustrating.  The action often gets bogged down by pages of character introspection, some of which is interesting, but some of which feels like only tangentially related minutia.

I read these books in the Kindle editions and using Amazon’s Whispersync service to keep my place synchronized with the Audible version of the book.  The narrator of the Audible version gets into the atmosphere of the book by adopting a distracted, awe filled, breathless, often hesitant tone.  He also attempts to give each character voice a specific personality, all of which I found distracting.

Still, I was intrigued enough after reading the first book to grab the second one as soon as it came out this week, and plowed through it in a couple of days.  And I do plan to pick up the third book, ‘Acceptance‘, when it comes out later this year.

So, with some reservations, I do recommend these books.  I’m hoping the answers to the series mysteries aren’t lame, but I’m willing to take the risk and ride it out.  If you’re in the mood for something different and mysterious, check it out.

2 thoughts on “The Southern Reach

  1. The plot descriptions reminded me of two (very good) books. The first one sounds like the premise in Roadside picnic by the Strugatski brothers. And the second one actually reminds me of not one, but two books from Stanislaw Lem, Solaris and The Investigation. Both of them deal with the limits of human ability to understand the world. All three are quite good.


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