The Southern Reach Trilogy: Opaque, Unique, Non-linear

I came to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach TrilogyC1fkV3l13mS._AC_US218_ the way I often do to new books these days, through an introduction by way of a film. I saw the movie Annihilation and honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. The movie’s end was deliberately left open to interpretation and I decided to seek out the source material to further explore my own ideas about what actually transpired.

Suffice it to say the book Annihilation did little to answer any of my questions. The film modified some key elements to the story so much so that at times I felt I was reading an entirely different tale. Well, not entirely different but the book had a feel all of its own.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that Annihilation was the first in a trilogy that described an alien (or is it?) presence on earth.  I plunged into Books 2 and 3 (Authority and Acceptance, respectively) determined to solve the riddle of the story’s end. And who am I kidding, beginning and middle too.

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. Both the film and the book upon which it was based were maddeningly obtuse.  Why would I be so foolish to assume the trilogy would be any different?  Is it really any surprise to learn that I read all three books and am still not entirely clear what happened in the end?

The story, in a word, is Strange. Yes, strange with a capital “S”. I admire how the author was able to create an entirely unique alien invasion that seems rather mundane on the surface but is terrifying in actuality.  I do think at its very basic this is an alien invasion story but unlike any other I’ve read.  There are no wars of worlds, little green men, or squid like creatures that stick to your face and lay an eggs (or something) in your intestine. You don’t ever get a glimpse of the invader, just some vague notion of a sliver in the sky or a shiny bauble on the beach.

Similar to other alien invasion stories there is a shadowy government organization trying, and failing, to get a handle on the situation. This is where I found the story most lacking.  What exactly was this organization and what were their motives? What did they know and when? Why did the keep sending people into an area where the alien species had staked a claim when very few ever returned? And further, how did they continue to get volunteers to what is essentially a suicide mission? That last point was somewhat addressed, though not satisfactorily in my opinion.

Working with the shadowy government organization was another organization that studied the paranormal.  One individual from this group seemed to know what was happening but frustratingly never shared this information in any definitive way.  He dropped cryptic hints and suggestions but how was this paranormal researcher, or snake oil salesman, in a position to understand an alien species when countless scientific minds with a bevy of resources and technology came up empty? Strange. Inexplicable. Deliberately perplexing.

The main characters were also kept at arms’ length. Here too, I never really felt like I knew them or truly understood their motives.  Hence, it was difficult to garner any sympathy for the predicaments in which they found themselves.  It was like watching people you don’t know from a great distance.  Sure, some of their experiences were interesting to observe but in the end did I really care about any of them? Not really, I just wanted the story to end.

So, on to the ending. Or lack of an ending as the case may be. Certainly, the end of the third book is left open. Many on-line reviewers had difficulty with this. Not that I blame them, you spend a good chunk of time reading a trilogy and you want a sense of closure at the end yes? Well, here’s the thing. I think the story did have an end but it was described in Book 2. If true, that is exceedingly clever and I can’t help but admire the brilliance of the execution. Sneaky! And even craftier, I think the ending described in Book 2 was supposed to be how the invasion would ultimately unfold until something unexpected happens at the end of Book 3. This turn of events puts the predestined ending into question and, admittedly, leaves the actual ending open.  But more hopeful I think, or at least that’s what I took away.

Have you realized that I’m not actually saying anything? Well, good, then you are ready for The Southern Reach Trilogy! If you like unusual stories that require much attention and analysis, and come with no no conclusive ending, thank this trilogy is for you! If you are not sure perhaps watch the movie Annihilation first. That may pique your interest enough to tackle the trilogy.

PS: In an odd coincidence I realized after I finished the trilogy I’ve been working through  another of Jeff VanderMeer’s books – the nonfiction writing guide “Wonderbook“. I think I am going to read another of his novels. This guy is comes up with some weird and wacky stuff! As a would be fantasy author, I could only hope to come up with content so original.

 

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