The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

annihilationHaving just read Annihilation, the first volume of Vandermeer’s series known as The Southern Reach Trilogy, I think I’m really going to enjoy the other two parts – entitled Authority and Acceptance. This trilogy was published last year – with three months between volumes. They’re lovely things too in hardback with attractive covers and bright endpapers – but what’s inside?

Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition sent in to investigate Area X – an area of an environmental disaster, monitored by a secret agency known as The Southern Reach. They’ve been monitoring it and sending in expeditions for thirty years – few return alive, and those that do are never the same as before.

The 12th expedition is a team of women: led by a psychologist, the others are a surveyor, an anthropologist and our narrator – a biologist who is never named. Their mission is to take samples, chart the land, keep journals – to help the Southern Reach understand Area X better.

The method by which they are transported through the mysterious border into Area X is unknown. The candidates for the team had all had to go through months of training and psychological conditioning including frequent hypnosis. They just awake in Area X and set off for base camp which had been set up by previous teams. There is real tension between the four women right from the start, and it’s not long before things start to go wrong.

It kicks off when they discover an uncharted tunnel, that appears as a tower built down into the ground. Some of the team start to descend including the biologist. It’s not long before they discover lush and glowing fungal growths on the walls – which releases spores onto the biologist. She doesn’t tell the others, but can immediately sense she’s changed.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall… the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat… and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

Later, the biologist realises that the spores have made her immune to the psychologist’s controlling hypnotic suggestions. It becomes clear that the psychologist has her own plan too which doesn’t include the rest of them, and the pressures on the women in this lush Eden-like world take their toll. Soon it’s just the psychologist and the biologist, and the psychologist decamps to the lighthouse – the main structure that was on the map, perhaps a remnant of this world pre-Area X. On her way to the lighthouse to challenge the psychologist, the biologist is on the canal bank when she catches a movement:

Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. … The something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen.

Before I started reading it, I had wondered whether it was going to be all conspiracy theories and X-Files style cover-ups – the rest of the series could be of course, but I was very happy to find a dystopian SF eco-thriller with horror overtones! I’ve deliberately not looked at where the story goes in subsequent volumes – the first volume does have an ending, but it can be read in several ways.

Annihilation started slowly, almost keeping us at bay as if we weren’t allowed into the minds of those who went into Area X. Once the biologist is exposed to the spores however, she changes, and this frees her to confide to us why she volunteered for a potentially fatal mission.

This novel also triggered so many memories in me of other books I’d read and programmes I’ve seen over the years:

  • thissideofparadisehd244Descending deeper and deeper into the tower reminded me of Mark Z Danielski’s wonderful and very weird novel House of Leaves.
  • The word ‘spores’ will always for me associated with the classic Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise from 1967 – in which spores from a flower make Spock experience bliss. One of my favourite Star Trek scenes came from this episode – when an infected Spock is hanging like a sloth from a tree branch, grinning away!
  • The dolphin reminded me of two things:  The Underwater Menace from the Patrick Troughton era Doctor Who, in which a mad scientist in Atlantis is operating to turn humans into Fish People – and the Doctor has to save sidekick Polly from this fate. Scared me stiff that did!  Then, more recently in Star Trek: The Next Generation -there was an episode called Genesis (1994), the crew begin to experience strange symptoms which lead to them starting to de-evolve. Captain Picard is infected and starts to become anxious and fearful and Data says he might soon de-evolve into a primate like a lemur or marmoset!

Vandermeer has created a beautiful yet dangerous world in Annihilation. I didn’t want it to stop. The tension was very well done and it was really rather creepy, I can’t wait to carry on and find out more about the controlling biological force in Area X. (8.5/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, pub in 2000 by Doubleday, 736 pages.

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12 thoughts on “The Southern Reach Trilogy

  1. Sounds like a great read! I do like the cover a lot. House of Leaves is also a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

    • All three books have well-designed covers.

      I’d love to see what you think of House of Leaves – it is a challenge – but all the more fascinating for it. I keep thinking I’ll re-read it – but that idea scares me, I wouldn’t want it to seem mundane on a re-read.

  2. The UK covers are quite different than those in North America. I have to say that I personally found that the strength of each part of the trilogy declined. Or rather, the third part was unsatisfactory. But that might be me, I wanted to like it more.

  3. Sounds great, and possibly up my Eldest Child’s street as he is a sci fi fan – and has a birthday in a couple of months! 🙂

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  5. Oh God, I loved Annihilation. I went on immediately to the second book, Authority, and I agree that the strength of the writing seemed to decline there, but it was still intensely gripping. VanderMeer’s focus on women as individuals is particularly pleasing–that lack of personal relationship which they all seem to have (except for the biologist’s marriage, of course, but that’s certainly not your typical marriage) makes it easier to focus on them as human beings, not appendages to men. Maybe that’s why I even liked their lack of names. I’d definitely recommend that you carry on to Authority and then to book 3, Acceptance; even with some slightly saggy plotting in the second book, that sense of suspense is paramount and very well managed.

  6. I’ve had the Southern Reach books on my radar for a while (hard not to) but haven’t pulled the trigger on reading them yet. I’ve got quite a long journey coming up late in the month, so perhaps that would be a good time to bang out the whole trilogy. They do sound exciting!

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