Friday, November 28, 2014

Cutting edge speculative fiction: Southern Reach

The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer is comprised of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.

The settings:
  • Area X, where a large and possibly growing strangeness has impinged on a coastal community
    • the lighthouse
    • the topographical anomaly, sunk deep into the ground but perceived by the consciousness as a tower
    • the swamp
  • Southern Reach, the bureaucratic governmental response to Area X, in the form of a collection of brick buildings, a border crossing, watchtowers, and the people who staff them

 A few major characters:
  • The biologist: the main character and only point-of-view character of Annhilation. She’s a member of the latest expedition to venture into Area X under the guidance of Southern Reach. Stripped of her name, conditioned by drugs, hypnosis and other forms of mind control to withstand some of the previously observed effects of Area X, she may be destined to be the only survivor, depending on how you define survival.\
  • John Rodriguez/Control: The incoming director of Southern Reach, and the main character of Authority. A man whose determination to succeed is met and undermined by the horrific, extensive, and mysterious effects of Area X on his staff and himself.
  • Gloria/Cynthia: The previous director of Southern Reach, whose secret past ties her to the nascence of Area X.  Most present in Acceptance

This series is unusual, even bizarre. It may be classified as science fiction or even horror, but it’s narrated so intimately that it feels more like an in-depth study of human nature and what a truly alien influence or presence or attempt to communicate or attack might look like. After years of humanoid TV aliens, whose cultures are just instructive fun-house versions of human culture, it’s kind of wonderful to force your mind to contend with the truly alien, and how limited and limiting is our human perspective in the context of the universe.

Science fiction books definitely do this better than television—CJ Cherryh comes to mind, and Sherri S. Tepper, but Vandermeer has snuck up on it from a different direction. If this intrigues you, please give it a read. For me, the first book was fascinating and the last one a bit of a let down (I tend to enjoy the inexplicable more than the explication, no matter how vague) but I expect this series is bizarre enough and amorphous enough that many different interpretations will exist.

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