Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reach Higher: The Triumphs Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Emma Page

anigif_enhanced-16101-1394903752-14anigif_original-grid-image-6678-1394903791-15Behold! Cover Art for Acceptance

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, the last volume of which is due to be released on September 2nd) is a haunting, elusive thing. Viewed from one angle it seems to be a piece of retro genre fiction with intense niche appeal. It draws on the lush imagery, paranoid politics, and horror-infused science-fiction and fantasy of twentieth century authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock and Philip K. Dick. From another angle, it’s fuel for the fire in the tired argument about the commercial and cultural lines between “genre” and “literary” fiction, a debate of which author Jeff Vandermeer is a reluctant veteran (as he said recently on Twitter: “I really try to sidestep genre-literary debates as getting mired in 101...[it] just seems meaningless to relevance to how I read or write.”) Finally, it’s a quietly subversive and experimental work of art, with a diverse cast of characters, a thoughtful approach to the often-narrow confines of the masculine genres it inhabits, and a commitment to challenging the assumptions of the publishing world which extends all the way to its format and the release schedule of the three volumes of the trilogy.

The sci-fi/fantasy trilogy is a well-worn format; it’s at least as common as stand-alone novels in those genres. Like any other kind of serialized storytelling, there are several different ways this can play out. In the worst cases, it’s a way of extending a money-making franchise or pandering to a rabid fandom. Most often, it’s just a way for the author to tell a story longer than what fits conveniently into a single volume. In the case of sci-fi and fantasy, it often allows readers to enjoy discovering the impressively realized universe in which the books take place, and the writers to take their time creating them. Although Vandermeer is known for his world-building prowess (his novels Finch, Shriek: An Afterword and the City of Saints & Madmen are all set in his Borgesian city of Ambergris), the Southern Reach trilogy largely bypasses the temptation to show off that ability.
VanderMeer is as much a reader as he is a writer. He (along with his wife, Ann VanderMeer) are as well-known for their work as anthologists and editors as they are for their own fiction. Although all authors are indebted to their predecessors in any genre, the Southern Reach trilogy makes this its core purpose rather than a grudging afterthought. It’s clear from early on in Annihilation that the novel is constructed from a series of common sci-fi and horror tropes. A Tower and a lighthouse, the darkly prophetic (literal) writing on the wall, the mysterious creature lurking at the bottom of a cave, animals with an ominous twinkle of intelligence in their eyes, the nebulous but possibly alien source of the horror. The cliches feel purposeful, as though VanderMeer is saving his energy for something else.  Annihilation is written in the first person, a Heart of Darkness-esque confession and personal record. It’s creepy and atmospheric, heavy with lush description and light on explanation and background. It’s chilling but somehow incomplete, a ghost story where the ghost never appears. Authority shares the same dark sensibility while being more open and slightly looser; here, it’s revelations rather than mysteries which are the source of the terror. Rather than treating it as a single massive novel broken into sections, or as an epic cycle connected more by setting and theme than by plot, VanderMeer treats the three volumes as three movements, each contributing something distinct to the whole.
VanderMeer has created an homage not only to a genre but also to a reading experience, and his interest in that experience extends well beyond the written page. An aficionado of pulpy mid-century American science fiction, Vandermeer wrote up seventies-style jacket copy for each volume in the series to go with the retro alternate cover art he recently unveiled on his website.
The covers are more like companion art for the series, with no plans for them to appear on any actual editions of the book. In his blog, Vandermeer explains that they came about after a conversation about jacket design with an artist Matthew Ravert. He mentions that a few recent reviews have pointed to the abundant 70’s and 80’s influences that can be found in the series, which makes these covers all the more appropriate. In his blog post, VanderMeer muses:
“I like the idea of these editions being found by readers in some dusty ill-lit corner of a used bookstore in the early 1970s....I still haunt used bookstores looking for those kinds of unexpected discoveries, and I still make finds that I treasure to this day.”
Although he’s no Luddite, VanderMeer clearly has a deep nostalgia for the kind of organic excitement which is driven by the reader’s passion rather than the fluctuating favors of the publishing industry. Authors often take years to complete a series, or space out the publishing schedule to maximize ongoing sales (usually this means releasing a paperback version of a previous volume and a new hardcover every six months or so.) By publishing three separate titles in quick succession, VanderMeer has eschewed these practical, traditional reasons for more gradual release. The release timing emphasizes the “trilogy-ness” of the work: three books, distinct but inextricably linked, meant to be read as a unit. Although books set in the same world are often described as “companions,” that phrase has never been so appropriate as it is for Annihilation and Authority. The two novels share characters and settings, make similar allusions and share a literary frame of reference, and yet they each achieve very different effects. They are companions which illuminate and inform each other while managing to avoid repetition or redundancy.
VanderMeer’s retro blurb for the first volume in the series reads thus:
ANNIHILATION: A mysterious wilderness in which the animals are changing! A tunnel into the earth, not on any map! An expedition divided against itself! In an adventure unlike any other, will the old ruined lighthouse guide them to safety or wreck them on the rocks? Come visit Area X with the biologist on the twelfth expedition. Nothing is at it seems, and nowhere is safe…--Jeff VanderMeer
Although Annihilation is steeped in the conventions of the era that fake jacket copy parodies, there’s nothing stilted or stale about the book itself. It’s a genuinely terrifying read which crawls under your skin and then festers there, like a fungus of the soul. The narrator of Authority describes his experience reading the transcripts of a series of interviews echo many of my own feelings while first reading Annihilation:
“The ghost was right there...moving through the text. Things that showed themselves in the empty spaces, making [him] unwilling to say her words aloud for fear that somehow he did not really understand the undercurrents and hidden references. A detached description of a thistle...a mention of a lighthouse. A sentence or two describing the quality of the light on the marshes in Area X."
The narrator of Annihilation (and the subject of those chilling interviews) is a woman who introduces herself as “the biologist,” a member of the latest five-person crew sent by the Southern Reach agency to explore and document the phenomenon known as “Area X.” The other members include an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist. We are told very little about Area X: only that it is a wild place which has defeated eleven previous attempts at exploration and documentation. The biologist’s husband participated in one of those failed expeditions, and although he did eventually return, it was as a shadow of his former self. He and his compatriots all died of cancer shortly after reappearing suddenly in the lives of their loved ones with no explanation as to how or why they had escaped Area X. The biologist’s motives for volunteering to go on the twelfth expedition are hard to parse. A desire for closure, understanding, or even revenge against the land that took her husband all seem like possibilities. But she also describes the pull that wild places and untamed life have always held for her, ever since she was a child playing near the overgrown swimming pool in her backyard. Area X, with its pristine, alien wilderness, is the perfect macrocosm of that lush lodestone of her obsessions.
There are no explanations in Annihilation, no satisfying infodumps to explain the disconcerting imagery and increasingly unreliable narration. VanderMeer forgoes any explanatory passages which would detract from the toe-curling, skin-crawling horror of the scene, leaving that to the next two volumes of the trilogy. The terror builds slowly, simmering just below the surface of his eloquent descriptions of the natural world. The scenery seems to shimmer in and out of focus, a reflection of the biologist's tenuous grasp on reality as well as the alien nature of Area X itself. What they are told will be a simple reconnaissance mission begins to fall apart early on with the discovery of a mysterious tunnel plunging into the earth, unmarked on the maps created by previous expeditions. Written on the walls of the tunnel in a living, mossy substance are an endless series of words which read like a nonsense version of an Old Testament prophecy. “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that...”  From the moment of the tunnel's discovery, things slide quickly into madness. The biologist claims to have been infected with what she describes as an unbearable “brightness” by the poetic fungus. The psychologist has secret hypnotic commands which she begins to use on the rest of the team, but the biologist remains unaffected. At the top of a lighthouse, which seems somehow connected to the alien tunnel, she discovers her husband’s final journal from the ill-fated eleventh expedition. By the end of the book we know less than we did when we started, and nothing is certain but the intense sensation of unease VanderMeer has so masterfully cultivated.
It’s easy to forget that there are no proper names in the book, just one of many powerfully eerie yet subtle choices VanderMeer makes while the reader isn’t looking. The biologist tells us:
“I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. Besides, we were always discouraged from using names...names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.”
Like much of what VanderMeer writes, that statement contains far more than appears on the surface. Its unsubtle foreshadowing belongs thoroughly to the cliches of pulp horror novels, as does the implication that each member of the expedition is there to fulfill a specific plot function and then be dispatched, one by one, by the monstrous world they have come to explore. VanderMeer embraces the cliche, using the rapid demise of the anthropologist as an excuse for a particularly terrifying description of what lies at the base of the mysterious tower. The Psychologist, on the other hand is not at all what she claims to be; that reversal too is unsurprising. She’s a more sinister version of the Scooby-Doo villain, the familiar face eventually revealed to be behind the villain’s mask. With the biologist, however, expectations break down. The more she reveals about herself, the more we come to understand that her given name is very much beside the point. She connects more closely with nature than she ever has with humans, feels a deep intimacy with the ordered chaos of biological processes. She is the biologist, or “Ghost Bird” as her husband affectionately dubbed her in the moments where her disengagement from humanity was impossible to ignore. As always, VanderMeer is aware of the tropes he approaches, twisting them just enough to show the reader the possibilities missing from more complacent, less self-aware versions of the genre.
In Authority, the play on names and naming continues: John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” finds he has less and less control over his own life after being appointed Director of the Southern Reach. He was dubbed Control by his grandfather Jack (short, of course, for John), and to this day remains under the control (and in the professional shadow) of his intelligence-officer mother, Jackie. He names his guns “Grandpa” out of equal parts respect and resentment for the militaristic man who gave him the nickname he’s never been able to shake. The former Director, who was in fact also the psychologist of Annihilation, defies all efforts at psychoanalysis. No one seems to have authority in Authority, least of all those (the Director, the former Director, the Assistant Director) whose titles should ordinarily give them power.
Annihilation is a relatively slim volume, clocking in at just under two hundred pages. Authority, the second in the series, is a slightly heftier and in many ways more approachable book. This central movement of the trilogy steps back from the biologist, instead following John “Control” Rodriguez. Control has been hired to replace the Director of the Southern Reach who disappeared on the same twelfth expedition which we witnessed through the eyes of the biologist in Annihilation. When Control is given the assignment, all he knows is that this has-been government agency is his last chance at a decent career. The Assistant Director is “a tall, thin black woman in her forties” named Grace, who has no interest in allowing an interloper like Control to take the place of the former Director. She’s reluctant to even allow him to use the Director’s old office, installing an almost comical array of surveillance devices which Control quickly locates and dismantles. At first glance the Southern Reach is a shadow of its former self, an underfunded group of scientists and bureaucrats tasked with researching Area X ever since it descended on the nearby coast decades earlier. Just hours after his arrival Control “already felt contaminated by the dingy, bizarre building with its worn green carpet and the antiquated opinions of the other personnel he had met. A sense of diminishment suffused everything, even the sunlight that halfheartedly pushed through the high, rectangular windows.” Grace seems possessive, a member of the old guard uninterested in letting Rodriguez usurp her authority. She refuses to acknowledge the permanence of the former Director’s disappearance, despite the fact that few have ever returned intact from Area X. Complicating this increasingly murky and terrifying impression of the agency is the fact that Control is secretly reporting back to an unnamed handler he knows only as the Voice, who may or may not be using Control for his or her own devices.
Control’s first task as Director is to interview the biologist, whom we learn inexplicably reappeared much as her husband did months earlier. While he and the other returnees all found their way to loved ones, she was picked up in an overgrown empty lot some distance from her home. She may have escaped Area X, but we understand from Annihilation that the biologist is only truly at home in the wildest of places. In Authority we see her from control’s perspective: a taciturn, guarded woman who divulged just 753 words in all of the pre-expedition interviews on file. She proves impossible to crack, and eventually disappears entirely--whisked away to a different branch of the agency in what seems to be a power play by the Assistant Director. In the meantime, Control begins to unearth increasingly disturbing evidence that all was not well with the former Director. She left behind strange writings, a plant that won't die, a trail of undecipherable signals and signs. He begins to suspect that the Southern Reach is less like a quietly decaying husk and more like a fetid, festering nurse log on the verge of bursting into a terrifying display of life.
Much like Annihilation, Authority poses more questions than it answers. The creeping, atmospheric horror of the first book, however, is submerged just below the surface in the second. Authority is narrated in the third person, and here VanderMeer is much more generous with biographical information and background detail. The switch from seeing the biologist as the narrator to seeing her as a silent, impassive prisoner is jarring in the best way. With every carefully chosen word she speaks, the reader feels the echoes of Annihilation and waits with baited breath to see if Control will understand what’s hiding behind her silence. The details about Control’s past in Authority and the descriptions of his daily routine in the little military town where the Southern Reach is located are the perfect contrast to Annihilation’s immersive, almost suffocating atmosphere. Control says that when he first learned the “truth” about Area X (or what passed for truth at the time) “he’d felt a great, empty chasm opening up inside of him, filled with his own screams and yelps of disbelief.” Annihilation conveys the visceral horror of Area X while Authority expands that terror to an intellectual and moral scale, setting up Acceptance to be both gratifying and terrifying, whatever conclusion VanderMeer may choose.

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