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3 September 2014updated 11 Sep 2014 11:00am

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer: Intricate, complex and surprising

Can we imagine morality on the scale of the human species as a whole?

By Neel Mukherjee

The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance 
Jeff VanderMeer
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In the remote southern coastal area of an unnamed country a bizarre and baffling phenomenon called Area X has manifested itself. It can be entered and left from only one point along an invisible border. A shadowy para-governmental body, the Southern Reach, set up to investigate Area X, sends out numerous expeditions to comprehend it, but members of these expedition teams return with their minds blank, as if they have become strangers in their own lives, then die unnaturally swiftly from aggressive forms of cancer.

Annihilation is the first novel in the astonishing Southern Reach trilogy by the American writer Jeff VanderMeer, and it lands us straight into the heart of things with the 12th (and final) expedition’s journey into Area X. Narrated by the biologist who is one of the team members (all unnamed), Annihilation is a frightening book, but also narratively and architecturally a brave one, because VanderMeer gets the “encounter with the alien”, normally the stuff of heart-pounding denouements, out of the way with the first instalment.

As if to spare us the intensity, the second volume, Authority, transports readers away from the epicentre, this time to the headquarters of Southern Reach itself, and lifts the curtains on the workings of this sinister outfit whose former director meets a grisly yet mysterious end in Annihilation. Seen mostly from the point of view of a newly appointed director called Control, whose real name is John Rodriguez, and concentrating largely on his interiority, Authority sounds one of the most important chords in the trilogy, namely, a kind of epistemological scepticism, an acknowledgement of the limits and sheer bluntness and infantility of human reasoning when confronted with something utterly uncategorisable such as Area X. As one character notes: “A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle . . . How do you know if something is out of the ordinary when you don’t know if your instruments would register the progressions?” By the time Control fumbles towards a vague notion that Area X may be sentient and “smarter, more insidious, more resourceful” than human beings could conceive of – that, in fact, instead of being a puzzle to be solved, it was beginning to solve human beings instead – Southern Reach comes to a spectacular end.

All the features in Annihilation – the densely imagined and extraordinarily ren­dered landscape of Area X with its two lighthouses, one of them located on a tiny uninhabited island off the coast; something called “a topographical anomaly”, which houses a life-form called the Crawler; the lush, wild ecosystem, reverting to a pristine state and flushing out all traces of man-made effluents and toxins; the mysteries centred around the lighthouses – recur in the final book, Acceptance, with increasing density of meaning and revelations. The imaginative daring and reach with which VanderMeer has invented and executed a concept such as Area X is breathtaking, especially in an explosive twist halfway through Acceptance that effortlessly moves the story from the local and earthbound to the cosmic.

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Simultaneous with the forward propulsion of the story is an equally masterful looping backwards in time to the central characters’ pasts as well as, crucially, to the possible origins of Area X and an explanation of its nature. The braiding of past and present is impeccable, a staggering feat of narrative architecture. What is the “brightness” that people who have visited Area X feel that is infecting them from the inside? What is the nature of the metamorphosis that the place wreaks on human beings? What kind of a biosphere is Area X?

Everything begins to fall into place, but in such intricate, complex and surprising ways that the explanations and revelations do not exhaustively explain and reveal, leaving a surplus that always remains outside the reach of understanding. This makes the trilogy – all three volumes of which have been published in quick succession this year – even more powerful and echoing. “You could know the what of something forever and never discover the why,” as one of the protagonists thinks.

That great theme of scepticism, of human beings as “incredibly blunt instruments”, now blooms into a flower of terrible beauty as we come closer to comprehending Area X. As a character explains,

that whatever’s causing [Area X] can manipulate the genome, work miracles of mimicry and biology . . . knows what to do with molecules and membranes, can peer through things, can surveil, and then withdraw. That, to it, a smartphone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature.”

Mentions have been made of the influence of H P Lovecraft on the trilogy, especially in the presence of a strong element of bio-horror and weird, metamorphic biological forms – but the real inspirations that provide VanderMeer with his philosophical dynamo are Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), both adapted, in watershed instances of 20th-century cinema, by Andrei Tarkovsky, as Solaris and Stalker.

As with the ocean that covers the surface of Solaris and can “read” the innermost thoughts and memories of the men in the space capsule orbiting it, or the Zone in Roadside Picnic, which, with magisterial indifference, brings human beings short and sharp up against their minuscule moral and cognitive stature, Area X is “something peering through what we think of as reality” to put human life and achievements in the vaster context of the universe.

The moral energy that gives the Southern Reach trilogy its profundity is not dissimilar from the one that powers those earlier works: it is the admission of how we are bound by our own view of consciousness, entwined with an appeal for a cognitive ethics. How should we be when faced with phenomena we don’t or cannot understand? Can we imagine morality on the scale of the human species as a whole? What is the moral imperative of the imagination? To use a fossil-era dualism, I hope the trilogy will come to be seen not only as the instant sci-fi classic it is, but also as Literature.

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”(Chatto & Windus, £16.99), has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

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