KFPL now has the first two volumes (Annihilation and Authority) of Jeff VanderMeer’s superbly creepy Southern Reach Trilogy. The third volume (Acceptance) has just arrived. Just click on any title to place your reservation.
First of all, here’s what Jeff VanderMeer said about the genesis of the series:
“Ideas creep in from all over the place, but for the Southern Reach there was a central dream that I had (which is the same way that almost all of my books have come about): I was dreaming of walking down a tunnel and seeing living words on the wall, and then eventually I realized I was going to see whatever was writing them… and I woke up. I remember distinctly that some part of my brain was saying, ‘If you see it, you’re never going to write the books.’ So I went back to sleep, and then in the morning I had pretty much the whole story in my head.
‘‘I had wanted to write about north Florida, and what came out of that desire through the dream is an idea about an expedition into an area that’s been cut off from the rest of civilization for 30 years, at the point of the first book, Annihilation. A secret government agency, the Southern Reach, has been sending expeditions into this ‘Area X’ to try to figure out what’s going on in there, but pretty much every expedition has come apart at the seams, and they haven’t found out what’s happening.
‘‘The setting of the Southern Reach trilogy is basically the 14-mile hiking trail that I do out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. Somebody I told the plot of Annihilation to said there were much stranger things going on at St. Marks than I knew, and my novel was not very proactive in that department at all! The expedition in my book gets charged by a wild boar: that actually happened to me out there. So did seeing dolphins in the freshwater canals. All these things make the setting of the series very personal to me, and meant that I didn’t really have to think much about it, so that allowed me to relax into the situation.
‘‘The fact that Annihilation is set in the real world makes a big difference. A reader who might not pick up a literary fantasy set in an imaginary world is more likely to pick up something about a strange expedition in our world. It’s still basically the real world (as becomes more clear in the second book), but I think the main thing is, from the genre looking out, it may not look like as much of a shift in what I write as it does from outside the genre looking in. If you’re writing imaginary-world fantasy on a more literary (or even experimental) side, you’re in this position where you have to get readers from both mainstream and genre, but you’re not drawing from the core of either.” (from his interview with Locus Magazine, in the July 2014 issue; read a longer version here.)
Intrigued? Here’s what Publishers Weekly‘s reviewers have said about each of the three volumes:
1 Annihilation (February 2014) The unnamed narrator of this brilliant first in a trilogy from fantasy author Vandermeer (City of Saints and Madmen) tells of her ever-more-terrifying, yet ever-more-transcendent experiences, as she, a biologist, and the three other members of her all-women team (a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist) set out to explore Area X, for some unspecified number of years deliberately isolated from its surroundings. Theirs is the 12th expedition to Area X, sent two years after the last attempt; the team hopes to discover why the zone, so lush and beautiful at first look, is a place from which none return — at least not in the same form that they entered. Using evocative descriptions of the biologist’s outer and inner worlds, masterful psychological insight, and intellectual observations both profound and disturbing — calling Lovecraft to mind and Borges — Vandermeer unfolds a tale as satisfying as it is richly imagined.
2 Authority (2014) The second volume of VanderMeer’s trilogy continues to investigate the secrets of Area X, a mysterious zone somewhere in the United States, isolated from the rest of the world through (as-yet) inexplicable processes, and from which participants of multiple expeditions have returned enormously changed — if they return at all. The narrator this time is John Rodriguez, who goes by the name “Control,” the newly appointed director of the Southern Reach, the organization that has, for 30 years, attempted to discover basic information about the zone. The Southern Reach is in turmoil following the calamitous 12th Area X expedition, which was the subject of Annihilation. In this sequel, VanderMeer supplements his evocative descriptions of the unnatural Area X with the shadowy, dusty, seemingly half-forgotten offices in which Control spends his time, as he parses video footage and interrogation testimony in order to get to the bottom of the Area X mystery. The book strengthens and develops the narrative arc while remaining fully coherent on its own, revealing more and more secrets about Area X all the while. VanderMeer’s masterful command of the plot, his cast of characters, and the increasingly desperate situation will leave the reader desperate for the final volume in the trilogy.
3 Acceptance (October 2014) The concluding volume of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy brings each of the series’s narrative threads together for an enigmatic but satisfying conclusion. In Annihilation, a single survivor from one of exploratory expeditions to Area X discusses her experiences, a portion of the southern U.S. that has become inexplicably isolated from the rest of the world and from which few visitors return. Authority, the second volume, is a conspiratorial tale about the highly secretive Southern Reach, the organization that, in theory, is attempting to uncover the secrets of the Zone. The story is related by its newly appointed director, Control, who, like many of the characters in the earlier books, reappears in Acceptance. Others about whom we have heard earlier also pop up, including Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper, who was one of the first to experience the Zone. The third book begins with another expedition as a team reenters Area X in search of a lost member. In many ways, this is the most mysterious and puzzling book of the three: VanderMeer employs multiple flashbacks and POVs, which contribute to a multifaceted, mutating portrait of Area X. The pacing of the narrative is slower, but the reader will want to move slowly so as not to miss any of the more subtle occurrences or psychological insights. By the time the book is finished, the reader knows that this trilogy is that rare thing: a set in which the whole is as great as the parts.
VanderMeer has provided some extra details on his website and in interviews. There are two (somewhat contradictory!) maps; one is of an island (interactive in its original version, which is accessible by clicking on the image and then scrolling down until you see the original):
In the Locus interview VanderMeer went on to explain:
“The trilogy is basically three complete, self-contained stories about three different characters. Obviously, Annihilation will leave people who want everything answered wanting to read Book Two, but there are also readers and reviewers who have been perfectly satisfied with it as a standalone novel. The second book, Authority, allowed me to delve a bit into the small-town South and places like that, without ever naming them, and get their flavor. I’ve been chuckling over a couple of (very positive) reviews of Authority where they say, ‘How the hell can I possibly explain this?’ I think, ‘Have you ever worked for a government agency?’ That bureaucratic element draws on personal experience, since I once had to go to every branch of a particular agency, and those are usually in the most remote areas you can think of. I had a crap-load of adventures throughout my day-job phase, and that stuff eventually came out in these novels. The third book, Acceptance, is divided equally between the Southern Reach and Area X, and has four different viewpoint characters. You find out more about the biologist, and I promise that readers will get answers – the ones they deserve and the ones they’re looking for.
‘‘The other thing that I keep coming up against in my fiction is how people react to something that is inexplicable. We’re living on an alien planet to begin with, because we don’t even know this world that we are, in effect, colonizing, and subjecting to our will all the time. I really, truly believe that in order to survive as a species (and this is a very science-fictional theory), we need to be able to imagine the world without us in it. This isn’t to say I think the world should be without us in it, but that we have to get beyond the idea that everything is here either to serve us, or that we’re here to be a steward for it. That tends to be the major default position in books that are not really about nature but include nature. They can Disneyify everything to the point where it becomes dangerous, because that view of nature bleeds into their positions on various issues in the real world in ways that are detrimental to trying to find solutions.” (further quotes from the interview with Locus Magazine, in the July 2014 issue; read a longer version here.)
The series has been published in several countries and languages, and as you can see from the cover illustrations above, it has prompted unique artwork. Here‘s a sampling from the Entertainment Weekly website, reproduced on VanderMeer’s site:
And for an even better view, visit VanderMeer’s Flickr album here
You can also see an animation here of the US cover of Annihilation, signed by Charlotte Strick and illustrated by Eric Nyquist (scroll down to the second image)
Interested in reading more about the Southern Reach Trilogy? Try these links:
Jeff VanderMeer’s website, Ecstatic Days
Read an excerpt from the first volume Annihilation
Jason Sheehan’s review of Annihilation for NPR
Michael Matheson’s review of Annihilation at ChiZine.com
Brief radio interview with Jeff VanderMeer on NPR [11:41 min]
Excerpts from print interview in July 2014 issue of Locus Magazine
Jeff VanderMeer’s Huffington Post article 10 Influences on The Southern Reach Trilogy