Mysteries piled on enigmas wrapped in puzzles. Jeff VanderMeer ends his weird fiction masterpiece on a note much like that on which it began. The universe, when it comes knocking, will be stranger than you ever imagined, and for everything you believe you’ve figured out, a door has simply been opened to another excursion into the unknown and unfathomable.
As a body of work, there has been very little like the Southern Reach Trilogy in spec-fic’s history. Now complete and collected into a single volume, it will perhaps benefit from being read as a whole work, rather than a trilogy. On its own terms, Acceptance, the final volume, solves many mysteries, but suffers structurally from its division into three narrative threads that create a choppy sense of pacing and present readers with the inevitable choice of favoring one or more of the storylines over the others.
Area X is the transformed, alien landscape somewhere along the American coast. It has drawn hundreds into its mutated depths. It is unpredictably benign, or hostile, can be both at once, and it moves with a purpose whose origins remain obscure. Was it an alien ark, sent by a dying race? Was there even an intention it would find our own world to settle on? Some of these answers are forthcoming. But VanderMeer, if he has succeeded wildly at anything, directed his goals towards producing a story seen too rarely in spec-fic: the kind that keeps entire subreddits thriving and friends staying up until the wee hours of the morning engrossed in conversation. There is value to this, because while some readers claim to want SF to be only about “entertainment,” they often forget that all-night chat sessions are, for many of us, entertaining as hell, and it’s to VanderMeer’s eternal credit that he’s got the will and creative energy to provide those fans with that kind of story.
So we learn about Saul, the lighthouse keeper whose presence has haunted the trilogy, where he has lurked as a transformed being called the Crawler, deep within the structure of the Tower that is the epicenter of this visitation. The book’s most compelling storyline reveals Saul’s past, prior to the advent of Area X, and his encounters with a dubious pair of hipster-scientist interlopers calling themselves the Seance & Science Brigade. Whatever their mission was, it’s apparent they’re working for Central, the governing body behind the Southern Reach. To whatever degree their actions are responsible in triggering Area X’s ultimate creation, Saul’s fate will now be forever tied to it.
A different story thread immediately follows the action of Authority, and here we follow Control, that book’s protagonist, and Ghost Bird, the “replicant” of Annihilation’s biologist. They have entered the mysterious realm, not simply in a final push for answers, but because, as Area X is now growing and taking over more and more of what was once called the real world, there is little choice. Control no longer belongs there, and Ghost Bird never did. Within Area X, time dilation exists in relationship to the outside. We discover the original biologist wandered its environment for 30 years before her ultimate transformation into some unimaginable beast. This seems to have been Area X’s S.O.P. regarding its human explorers: send a cloned replacement back into the world while subsuming the original person into itself. But it’s a broken, flawed system, with almost none of its replicants surviving or adapting, or doing whatever Area X meant for them to do at all, if anything.
It’s eerie, compelling business. But a third narrative, told in second person and focused on the Southern reach’s Psychologist/Director, felt dull and much too expository, too seeped in behind-the-scenes political machinations within Central. The Director’s immediate superior, Lowry, has agendas, and it’s the most conventionally X-Filesy material in the whole series, arguably making less sense in the end than Chris Carter’s manner of flailing around in deep lore for its own sake.
But as Big Think speculative fiction with this powerful an immersion into the weird goes, I’d have to call Jeff VanderMeer’s work on this trilogy an overall triumph, whatever my specific misgivings may be about this particular volume. One day down the road, I want to give it all a fresh, sequential re-read and discover what new nightmares and speculations I may have missed the first time. And then I suppose I’ll have no trouble finding folks to argue about it all with. Science fiction used to offer its readers this kind of opportunity a lot more than it does now. On those grounds alone, Area X has more than earned its accolades.