I enjoy reading and I’m especially fond of a long, involved story I can be invested in. At the risk of sounding shallow, in the olden time bookstore days, I used to browse the Sci-Fi section in search of wide spines, followed by a quick glance inside covers to verify a potential target book’s font hadn’t been boosted in size to make it look more impressive. Of course being a good book is even more important; if it’s a series, even better. Classics like Dune, Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are examples of series that satisfy all three of my preferred criteria and are on my regular rotation for re-reading every few years. I’ve just made a new addition to that collection, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance.
GeekDad readers are no doubt familiar with VanderMeer’s work. We’ve looked at previous books by the Nebula award-winning author like City of Saints and Madmen, The Steampunk Bible and Monstrous Creatures.
If there is anyone who is up to the task of writing a trilogy that combines the mysterious appeal of Lost, a dash of gothic horror and a twist of “weird,” it’s VanderMeer.
Southern Reach is both the title of the series and the name of a secret government agency tasked with overseeing a mysterious coastal land (possibly in Florida?) known as Area X. Multiple expeditions have been sent into Area X since it first appeared 30 years ago and each has ended in disaster and failure: mass suicide, turning on one another, gunfights, even a rapidly fatal cancer cluster. More often, the teams simply failed to return.
Within Area X — which is protected from human civilization by an invisible border and Southern Reach checkpoints — all signs of human inhabitation are slowly being erased, save for a lighthouse. Pristine wilderness is left behind, but it’s not quite right…
As befits a story involving wilderness and a biologist, animals make frequent appearances. Among others, a mouse, a dolphin, an owl and white rabbits enter into the story at different times (the owl and a rabbit make it onto two of the book covers). Each sounds rather harmless and far from exotic, but VanderMeer manages to make them seem as potentially sinister as any monster.
There are good old fashioned creepy crawlies as well, but it’s the atmosphere and tension permeating the books that builds a sense of dread and anticipation as much as any supernatural beings do. Adding to the mix, the human characters (frequently referred to by their title such as “the biologist” rather than by name) are hardly trustworthy. Some have their own agenda. Some are clearly insane. Some aren’t who — or what — they seem. Information is hidden, failures are covered up over the years and psychological manipulation is rampant.
This is the kind of writing that makes you keep reading, reluctant to put a book down until the next mystery is solved, only to keep going because the answer is a stepping stone to an even greater (and often more disturbing) puzzle.
All three books in the series have been released this year — the latest, Acceptance just hit shelves a few weeks ago — so you don’t even have to wait to find out the secret of Area X.
If you enjoy engrossing speculative fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up the Southern Reach Trilogy. Let me put it this way. Even though the publisher sent me copies of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, after reading them once, I bought all three as e-books and have already begun re-reading.
They’re that good.