The Area X Trilogy
Oct 27, 2016
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy
Genre: Weird Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Summary: Area X is a dense series of books that expects a lot of the reader and doesn’t provide many – or any – answers. If you’re a fan of Lovecraft or Danielewski, you’ll probably be right at home.
What if nature fought back?
If you wanted to make an elevator pitch for Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy that might be it. At its core, the three books are man and/or woman against nature.
Or it could be man vs. nature and woman, or possibly man vs. woman, or past vs. present. Or about the way family influences our lives, or the pressures of a toxic workplace. Or a love story about a man and woman, or a woman and her work, or maybe two men in a less open time. Or possibly it’s about aliens, or ghosts, or sea monsters. It might be a cautionary tale about genetic experimentation, or a political statement on the importance of environmentalism, or a religious allegory.
Or it might be a lighthouse murder mystery.
Primarily, Area X is a book that doesn’t provide easy answers. One of the lead characters is never given a name – she’s simply the Biologist. Her story forms the core of book one – Annihilation, which is where my involvement comes in. I’m always intrigued by stories focused around a female protagonist, and Annihilation is a book without a single active male character. It’s also being adapted into a movie, which is how I first heard of this now two-year-old series. When the work was compared favorably to Lovecraft and placed in the tradition of weird fiction, I put it on my “must read” list.
To compare it to Lovecraft is unfair, though. Lovecraft was never this strange; he expected that via strict scientific observation of the natural world, horrors would be revealed – not that nature itself would openly rebel against observation. I’d place it in the same vein as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but less intentionally misleading. Whereas Danielewski provides multiple unreliable narrators casting doubt on the events described, VanderMeer offers Lovecraft’s pure observation and retelling of events that are, themselves, unreliable and not guaranteed to repeat.
The titular “Area X” is a mysterious area of the Florida panhandle where the rules have changed. People who go in don’t come back the same – most don’t survive the trip. Nature has taken over, but the animals are different. Familiar, but they’re in the uncanny valley. A government agency sends expeditions in with great frequency, but what becomes of them is highly classified.
The Biologist enters on an expedition. Her husband went on the prior expedition, returned a shell of his former self, and died of a mysterious and aggressive cancer within months. She’s not necessarily seeking answers, just retracing the steps of a man she’s not sure she ever loved. Being a scientist, she wants to objectively observe and record what she finds, which she does, meticulously.
The second book, Authority, deals with the operation of the agency overseeing Area X and the expeditions. The new director is a young man named Rodriguez, nicknamed Control by his grandfather, whose family has long been involved in intelligence agencies and classified operations. He assumes his position after the death of the previous director. His struggle with authority – his own as director, the authority to which he answers, and the presence of the recently returned Biologist as the primary authority on Area X – forms the core of the story.
Then comes Acceptance, and after the first two books being pretty odd in their own right, the gloves and the mask are pulled off, and we plunge directly into stories across multiple periods in time, revelations about the Biologist, the Director, Control, the Agency, and Area X itself.
Some reviews criticize the loose plot and lack of resolution, and if you’re looking for a satisfying conclusion where all the threads of plot come together, you’ll be disappointed. However, I found the end to fit the narrative – the reader has been asked to trust those involved in the story, and depending on where you place your trust among the characters determines your level of satisfaction with the story. I, personally, trust Ghost Bird – a character introduced in Authority, and expanded on greatly in Acceptance, seeking her own independent existence – and I found the conclusion to be hopeful.
I’ve also thought about what that might say about me, and been deeply troubled.
And that’s the thing I loved about this book – by not providing answers, the reader is forced to make assumptions based on the detailed characterization of the main players and how their own views affect how they see these players. However, nothing – and no one – is what it seems in Area X. The characters you know might not be the same as the characters you met as people grow, change, and are affected by authorities beyond their control. The reader is placed in their own position of authority, deciding what of the story is important, and – to an extent – what is true in Area X.
At the beginning, I offered multiple standard stories to describe Area X, and now I’ll offer a final one: This is a story about the names we give that which controls us, the names we’re given, and the way we reject and reframe both authority and identity through those names. It has ghosts, sea monsters, and more – but the story is ultimately about people, relationships, and the pursuit of self-actualization. If you’re up to the challenge of the expedition, I’d strongly recommend Area X; but remember that – like the expeditions – you’re not guaranteed to return in the same condition you entered.