What I’ve Been Reading: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

There are two things I have to admit before we can talk about the Southern Reach trilogy:

  1. My partner and I have a secret, special place online… a shared folder of ebooks. This magical spot includes every DRM-free file we’ve ever bought, plus all the digital books and magazines we’ve gotten free at cons, as contributor copies, or in giveaways. Between the two of us, we have hundreds of reading options, collected over a decade.
  2. Last November, he got me a tablet for my birthday. It was inexpensive, a few years out of date, and doesn’t run very quickly, on purpose, because I wanted something with a 10 inch screen that I couldn’t use for games. I wanted a reading tablet, something to help me get through that giant digital to-be-read pile. The tablet I was gifted is absolutely perfect for the job.

So, you’d think I read a lot. I haven’t been. For a couple of years, I haven’t been able to get into a headspace for reading for pleasure, so unless a book or story promised to enhance my writing techniques or was for research, I put in the “someday” pile and moved on.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, US cover.

Last week, I opened up Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy. I’d put off reading it for a long time, partly because I had this idea in my head that it was going to be hard to read. Smarter than I am. Too literary for my mood. More… something, than I was ready for. It’s not.

Annihilation is so well written that it feels easy. I didn’t notice the work that must have gone into writing it at all, even though it’s my job to analyze writing, break down work into its component parts. I planned to, when I started reading, but I forgot about studying the technique as I got into the story.  Annihilation is that rare kind of beautiful epic which creates an entire world yet effortlessly flows from the page as fast as you can move your eyeballs. I tore through the first book and ended up reading the whole trilogy in two days.

Authority, US cover.

It’s safe to say that Annihilation can be read alone, but once you start Authority, you’ll have to read all three.

I didn’t immediately love Authority the way I fell for Annihilation, though I can clearly see it’s well-written, precise, and intense, in a similar way to book one. I struggled to care about Control, book two’s narrator, and the world he lived in. Coming right off of the lush wildness of book one, it was jarring to be forced back into the antiseptic world closed spaces, office buildings, and clinical settings. It feels so small. Stifling. Lifeless.

And here’s where we talk about authorial intent: do I think VanderMeer wanted his readers to feel unsettled and limited here? Absolutely. He creates that too-tight, closed-off perspective perfectly. Nothing about my reaction to the beginning of Authority can be blamed on bad writing (there isn’t a bad chapter in any of these books). The trilogy, taken all together, is like breathing in and out, collapsing and expanding.  When you can’t catch your breath, then, suddenly, fill your lungs with oxygen, those first few good inhalations are sweeter than the ones you had before the asthmatic fit, when you just assumed you’d keep on breathing without effort, and therefore take it for granted.

You breath deep the fresh cool air of Area X by the end of book one. It’s a stroll through the woods, a day at the beach, a dip in the pool, a long nap in a hammock. It’s having a bunch of pent up energy and then getting a chance to run free. Having to put on a tie and go into work the next day doesn’t feel right. I wanted to get back outside.

More than just a change in tone, there’s a difference in which parts of the Southern Reach you get to see. The first 11 chapters of Authority include the backstory you don’t get in book one. By chapter 12, though, Control has started to see there’s a door in his life and the sun shines though the tiny spaces between the door and the frame. There was an exit back into that wildness, maybe, but was Control the guy to take it? This is where I realized I was falling into the story, and somewhere right after this, I stopped keeping track of which chapter I was in.

Acceptance, US cover.

The end of book two, and all of Acceptance (book three), bring the different elements back together, finally wrapping up in a very complete way. It doesn’t answer every question you’ll have when you start to explore Area X, but it gives you a compelling resolution of the biggest conflicts, and a strong sense of place, of purpose. You can guess at the bits left unexplained, satisfied that you know in your heart what’s happened off the page.

You’ve probably heard that the collected novels have a unified theme, a focus on the environment, ecology, the future of our planet… That is true, but if you’re worried you’ll be beaten over the head with a moral message, don’t be. VanderMeer gives you a world that’s varied and complex, beautiful and frightening and maddening, in all senses of the word. He lets you explore and invade that space but it’s up to you to decide how you feel about it.

I’m definitely going to be reading these books again soon, and buying copies for friends.

One of the great and glorious aspects of the popularity of this series is the vast number of translated editions, because each new language that expresses the Southern Reach has come with a new set of art. (Note to convention programmers: There needs to be a class or a presentation or a panel on the art of Area X. I am happy to speak on/present/be on a panel, just to be able to keep looking at these images. Please ask me.)

I’ve shared a sampling of the covers published so far, below. Click on any of the images to see a larger size. (Worth it for the amazing detail.)

Sadly, these lovely retro covers by Matthew Revert don’t actually exist as covers on any of the novels, but maybe there’ll be a special edition someday?

“Go Retro” covers by Matthew Revert

Have you read these books? What did you think? Leave me a comment below!

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