Book recommendation: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

I’m really, really enjoying The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. I’m only part way through the second book, but I can already tell that it’s going to be as interesting and rich as the first one, and I’m really wishing I could forgo all the other work I need to be doing and just sit and read all day.

If you’re not familiar with this series, here’s the briefest of brief premises: 11 expeditions have gone into “Area X”, which is a mysterious bit of land that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Many (but not all) of these expeditions resulted in apparent disaster, including suicide, violence, disappearances, and no one seems to really be able to say why. The members of the 11th expedition returned to the world outside Area X in a kind of fugue state, spontaneously appearing at home with minimal memory of what happened, and then all died of cancer a few months later without being able to relate many details of their time inside. The first book begins with the 12th expedition, and is narrated through the journal of the Biologist on the team.

A larger synposis of each of the books can be found in the usual sorts of places if you want to read more, and there are more than a few highly entertaining and interesting reviews of his work out there such as this one in The New Yorker (where they call VanderMeer the “King of Weird Fiction”. So cool.)

As someone who gets more than a little swoony over fiction that plays with unreliable narration and ambiguity and the uncanny and “weird” stuff, Annihilation (Book 1) pushed all kinds of correct buttons for me. The Biologist (the narrator and author of the journal you’re ostensibly reading) holds so much back from you, revealing a bit more and a bit more over time, but she does so almost grudgingly. The pace of the book is deliciously slow and thoughtful, as if she’s crafted and revised her presentation of her experiences very deliberately. I got the strong sense that she might not understand herself and is faking her calm, or she understands quite a bit more than she can trust herself to put on paper (or is willing to). But most of all, I got the very real sense that she did not trust me. That she’s writing for an audience that she feels little to no affinity towards. All of this made me question and wonder why she’s written down anything at all, and if anything she’s shared is even a shadow of reality.

Over time, you come to understand that she knows and sees much more than she’s sharing with you–often explicitly like when she says she “won’t repeat” something “here” or when she confesses that she’s lied about something she described earlier, revising her narrative after-the-fact. Her way of also sometimes avoiding certain topics you’d expect her to want to talk about also comes into play, making absence and avoidance and mistrust the primary vehicles through which you get to know her. But this isn’t to say that I didn’t like her. No, I loved her as a character. I’m reluctant to explain why though, because I think that would reveal more about me than I’d like to get into here, but just know that none of this makes her an unsympathetic character. Quite the opposite. You fear for her, and hope for her, and have a kind of unrequited affinity for her.

This “holding back” of information is also major thematic element of this first book for various reasons (which I won’t go into here because spoilers), and the way it comes to be the primary mechanism for getting to know the Biologist’s character is so utterly thrilling. This is interesting as fuck to me. You have no idea.

The second book, Authority, which I’ve only just started, is already proving to be just as interesting but for very different reasons. Unlike the narrator of the second book, you’ve just finished reading The Biologists journal, and have a lot more information (if you can even rely on it at all) than he does. He seems to be about where you were at the beginning of the first book in terms of his naivete and ignorance about the nature of Area X. I’m seeing him form theories and miss the mark on what he’s thinking in really interesting ways, all complicated by the fact that I have no way of really knowing if my own theories about Area X are close to the truth (considering how unreliable The Biologist’s journal seems to have been).

I can’t wait to keep reading this series. Especially since I recently learned that Alex Garland (of the amazing Ex Machina movie and other idea projects) will be writing and directing the movie form of these books. Big squee. Very big squee. :)