Undeniably one of speculative fiction’s “events” of 2014, The Southern Reach trilogy comes to (strangling) fruition with the publication of Acceptance (FSG Originals, September 2014). (“Strangling” because of the strange text explorers find in Area X’s most remote environs, “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Get it? Oh, never mind.)
The speculative fiction community has rapturously received The Southern Reach trilogy, due perhaps, in part, to Jeff VanderMeer’s obvious literary ambitions. This ain’t your granddad’s science fiction; Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance are well-written (and slickly packaged) commentaries on the developing global environmental crisis, as well as examinations of the nature of “weird fiction” itself. The Southern Reach has enjoyed more muted success beyond its genre. The reviewer for The New York Times (definitely not a cutting-edge resource for speculative fiction news) was decidedly mixed in his reaction to Annihilation.
Full disclosure: I thoroughly enjoyed Annihilation and, having now completed the trilogy, consider it the best entry in the series. Annihilation seemed, at least in comparison to its successors, to be the most “distilled” essence of what VanderMeer was trying to accomplish. I suspect this is due in part to the origins of the story (it came to VanderMeer in a dream), but it is also related to the structure of the story: If Annihilation serves as the “setup,” and the establishment of the mystery of Area X, then Authority is the “bridge” to Acceptance, the “resolution” to the story. I use quotes here because, of course, resolution is a relative term. Given the constraints of the genre, as well as simple good storytelling sense, VanderMeer was forced to walk the line between spelling out his vision for readers and providing them no answer at all. Some readers will be disappointed that VanderMeer hews more to the latter than the former.
Of course, all of this goes to show the ways in which the separate volumes in a trilogy (or series) ultimately become subsumed into the larger story. Would Acceptance stand on its own? I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read Annihilation and Authority. Acceptance follows in the wake of its preceding “chapters.” Even were it not the concluding volume in what amounts to a serial novel, though, Acceptance isn’t quite up to snuff, at least when compared to Annihilation, but it’s certainly head-and-shoulders above most other entries in the genre.
Acceptance alternates perspectives between Ghost Bird (the Area X produced doppelganger of the biologist from Annihilation), Saul (the lighthouse keeper), and Gloria, the former director of the Southern Reach–related to the reader in the second person, an effectively unsettling decision on VanderMeer’s part. The threads of the story bring together different timelines (pre-Area X, post-Authority, etc.), further disorienting the reader. Ultimately, the effect is to mask the nature of Area X to the reader, who will be busy trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. But VanderMeer uses the technique to build tension, too, moving the story forward, keeping the reader guessing, if not always successfully–after all, the reader knows how Gloria’s story will end, and, to some degree, Saul’s. Of course, it’s the “why” and the “how” the reader is chasing here, not the “what.”
VanderMeer employs in Acceptance the same recursive, elliptical syntax he began building toward in Annihilation and Authority. His sentences uncoil outward, clause upon a clause, lending them a strangely hypnotic quality well-suited to the subject matter. There are times when VanderMeer’s flow works against him. For instance, some of the sections discussing Gloria’s involvement with the Southern Reach, and her bureaucratic in-fighting with Lowry, can tend toward tedium, but, as with his examination of institutional decrepitude in Authority, that may well be the point. VanderMeer’s prose demands patience of the reader.
That patience may or may not be rewarded in the book’s conclusion. How satisfactory a reader will find the ending of Acceptance is, of course, a matter of personal taste. That said, it’s safe to say that readers who expect definitive answers or resolution from their narratives are better off steering clear of The Southern Reach. Answers of a sort are given, and the fates of characters decided. Word is VanderMeer may further develop the ending with a follow-up novella.
The Southern Reach is successful both because of its actual achievements, which are sometimes limited, and its ambitions, which push forward the boundaries of speculative fiction as a genre. Readers still on the fence in regards to whether or not they should read the trilogy are advised to consider how patient they are and to what degree they require definitive endings; VanderMeer asks much but dispenses little. That said, there are great things to be found in Area X, especially in Annihilation and Acceptance. A highly accomplished, if flawed, series that is recommended to most speculative fiction readers, especially those who appreciate atmosphere and character over plot.
Note: For those of you who are interested in “what it all means,” I recommend checking out this thread on Reddit. (Includes spoilers.) A friend tells me that, during a signing, he discussed the thread with VanderMeer, who said it “has some good ideas in it.” I have my own intuitive, uninformed theory; DM me on Twitter if you’re interested.