The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority & Acceptance
Okay, so I understand I said last time that I would be review ing What is the Bible? By Rob Bell, and I had every intention of doing just that. Indeed I was halfway through What is the Bible? when I was sucked into the world of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. I didn’t mean to, but sometimes books happen to you.
This isn’t the first time my life has been taken over by a trilogy, and I know it won’t be the last. I vividly remember the afternoon I cracked The Hunger Games. I was perhaps two chapters in on a Saturday leading into a holiday weekend when I realized that if I didn’t get over to the library and check out Catching Fire and Mockingjay immediately I would be trapped. The angst of not being able to dive right into the next book was more than I could bear. I learned this the hard way with Harry Potter (a heptalogy, if you’re keeping score at home.)
Sometimes a girl’s gotta binge read. It is what it is.
Here’s the funny thing about my latest binge, all three of the Southern Reach books had been sitting on t he Christ Church Bookstore’s sale table since June. I know, I put them there. All summer long I strolled past, curious about the cover art, but determined to clear out titles that I felt had languished in the fiction section too long. Still, my eye kept being grabbed by the bright colors and foil stamping. “What the heck,” I thought one day. And that was that.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you I could not put Annihilation down. I was powerless. It was as if the world of the book had taken over my brain. I even admitted to my writing group that I felt “infected,” like the book was a virus or a parasite or possessing spirit or something of that nature. They all looked at me in polite disbelief when I told them the title was Annihilation. “It’s really good, I swear, they’re even making a movie!” I said in my defense. The women in my group are tough customers, and I’m not sure they were buying it. But here’s the deal, I’m still not fully recovered. On some level, the world of Annihilation will always be with me — like Narnia, Katniss, Middle Earth, Lisbeth Salander, and the Red Room of Pain.
Annihilation is perhaps best categorized as bio-sci-fi, or maybe eco-horror. Something nature-y, weird, and hyphenated. It opens as a top secret government expedition of four female scientists preparing to enter “Area X,” an uninhabited stretch of the Florida Gulf Coast that has become occupied by an unknown force/entity/being. We are taken on a journey of discovery, transformation, and, ultimately, expulsion from this alien garden. Some questions are answered, but most just morph and expand. Even though as a reader I had come to “accept” the new reality of the book, I still wanted to know more. Good thing I had planned ahead and brought home the second book in the series, Authority.
Authority is set in a military training and research facility called “Southern Reach.” This book reads a lot like a long, complicated X-Files episode combined with Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, the one where Dolores Umbridge, the awful professor in pink, takes over Hogwarts. The bureaucrats are in charge, and the wheels within wheels of power are corrupt. Authority was maddening. I kept wanting VanderMeer to get on with it, to snip all the red tape and nuke the institutional bottlenecking, but like J.K. Rowling, he knows how to take you on a journey that mirrors the emotional life of the protagonist. John aka “Control,” is frustrated and wants to figure out what the heck is going on — and so will you once you read it.
It’s not until Acceptance, the third and final book, that you finally get to the bottom of things, because at long last, you are ready. And the answers are not simple; in fact if you don’t allow yourself to get worn down by the extreme complexity, mystery and gravity of the situation, then you will never reach a place of “acceptance” as a reader, and that is because so many of the answers raise more questions. Such is life. And such is great, immersive fiction.
Case in point, I was talking about books yesterday with my mother-in-law Joan, who could not believe an author had said in the NYT Book Review Q&A that he only got half way through one of the Elena Farrante books. “I couldn’t put t hem down,” she exclaimed, then I reminded her that I had also dumped the Ferrante. “Guess I’m just not into tough Napoletano girls,” I said. “But what do I know, I’m still infected by a haunted estuary!” She could only look at me like the kook that I am. “To each her own,” we agreed.
I am back to reading Rob Bell’s book about the Bible, and will tell you all about it next time, but part of me is still in Area X, and that’s okay. That’s what a good book should, and will do to you. Reading is a meandering pursuit. And so what if The Southern Reach Trilogy came out in 2014. For most readers that’s new enough. Besides, if this review gets you to read Annihilation now you’ll be all set to say “the book was better” when the movie comes out in February, 2018. You can thank me then.
Next up: What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell.