Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Available works by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) comprising Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, all published in quick succession, is set on a fictional coastal stretch along what may be the US East Coast, in a military quarantined zone known as Area X. A high point in the New Weird literary genre, straddling sf and horror, the trilogy turns the subject of an alien invasion into a meditation on humanity’s encounter with the unknowable. Annihilation won the Nebula Novel award (2015).

Events take place decades after the area known as Area X was first discovered, a spacetime anomaly encased by a shimmering, yet penetrable membrane. The area is host to an unexplained alien presence which seems to be rewriting the genetic baseline of the area’s flora and fauna, including those of the researchers and military personnel sent in to explore the area. It splices one with the other and it replicates expedition members, creating a monstrous ecology of hybrids and doppelgangers. The government agency known as Southern Reach has been set up to quarantine and explore the area. The public has been led to believe that the region has suffered an environmental disaster. By the time Annihilation kicks off, numerous expeditions have already been launched into Area X, expedition members either dying, disappearing or later developing cancer. Decades of research into the area and the authorities are none the wiser.

Annihilation, the first book in the trilogy, sets the series’ desperate tone of epistemological defeat, as it follows yet another, now all-female expedition into Area X. We learn from the very beginning – despite the decades of government research – that their equipment is either nonsensical, inadequate or antiquated. Even before they set off, we know they are doomed. The team share neither a collective history nor a common objective. It is clear that they have been kept apart prior to the expedition, received different training, different instructions. The expedition members remain nameless and are only referred to by their function: the biologist, the psychologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist. As soon as they enter the area, they fail to recall the moment they crossed into it, and they have no clear idea of how to get out. They can’t even agree on what they are seeing, and soon every notion of the familiar has been peeled away, creating a no man’s land of existential horror. At the end of the novel, the biologist declares: "Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish". The expedition members’ encounter with Area X in many ways recalls humanity’s encounter with the Kefanuchi Tract in M. John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012). The alien manipulation of Terran fauna and flora recalls Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series (1987-1989). The epistemological defeat underlining the work also recalls much of Stanislaw Lem’s work.

While Annihilation chronicles the individual’s encounter with Area X, the immediate follow-up, Authority, shifts the focus to the machinations of the Southern Reach agency set up by the nefarious government body known as Central, much of the action taking place in office corridors. A new director, John ’Control’ Rodriguez, former domestic terrorism operative, has been brought in to breathe new life into an organisation that after years of insular existence has lost all sense of direction. As he sifts through years of accumulated data, he quickly gathers that reality differs from official accounts. The actual number of expeditions into Area X for example exceeds the official tally. He starts to suspect that his handler at Central, known only as ‘the Voice’, is conditioning him via hypnosis. Against a tonal backdrop of deep state paranoia, Rodriguez is caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic claustrophobia. Southern Reach and the many unexplained experiments carried out on expedition members are as much a black hole as Area X.

Acceptance doesn’t offer much of a satisfying resolution in the traditional sense, leaving the reader guessing as to the hows and whys of the alien invasion. One thing is clear though: Area X is devoid of heavy metals and pollutants, a pristine wilderness entirely hostile to humans.