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The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

As I sit and contemplate the inclement weather currently freezing my car to the driveway, I reflect that it's not often I can claim to be ahead of the curve, whether by accident or design. And I still can't. However, it seems I found Jeff VanderMeer at an opportune moment.

A quick shout out here to indie bookshop Griffin Books of Penarth for getting all three volumes for me in record time. Good work team! 

I discovered the short trailer for Annihilation on Twitter (much better than the official one, with fewer 'monsters' and more suspense) and was instantly captivated by the visuals. Now, I don't and won't pay for Netflix, and am very annoyed with Paramount Studios for their rather mercenary short-sightedness over not releasing the film adaptation, written and directed by Alex Garland, into cinemas outside the US and China, but it did allow me to burn through the trilogy without fear of my own interpretation being corrupted by the cinematic filter of a big budget movie version. Not that I'm not looking forward to it–far from it; it looks stunning!–but at least I can 'do the book' first.

It is going to be hard to write convincingly and honestly about what an amazing trilogy this is without spoilers, so please accept my apologies. But what a first book! So creepy, atmospheric, and damned weird, it instantly defamiliarizes the world we know and twists the boundaries of science, nature, and fantasy. Different from the film, so it seems, with its phenomena known as the Shimmer, Area X in the book is a site of environmental catastrophe, an impenetrable bubble which landed or arrived suddenly 30 years previously and since when has resisted all attempts at comprehension. Teams of scientists and soldiers have entered through the one observable gateway, only to disappear, or kill one another, or worse, come back altered and riddled with cancer. We follow an unnamed biologist as she joins the twelfth official expedition to journey into the fractured wilderness.

What she finds is beauty amid corruption. The land is surprisingly free of contaminants and pollution, but this pristineness is at odds with our own warped expectations, that we've already spoiled all there is to be spoiled. VanderMeer states that "I don't find ecological destruction beautiful," but his perverted ecological evolution is just that. As a biologist, Area X speaks to her at an atavistic level which she can't comprehend. It has a strange potency, a latent possibility for change. And it is unknowable. In truth, the whole series is epistemological. In a neat synopsis of the whole trilogy, one character says, "You could know the what of something forever and never discover the why."

Nature has reclaimed the town which once stood here, although the provenance of some of the creatures is obscure and otherworldly. There are horrors that wail all night, others which splash unseen in the marshes, and the team discovers as each team before has done an inverted tower sunk into the landscape inside which we find a lyrical poem of madness inscribed in glowing fungal growths or lichen, themselves in the shape of tiny hands, whilst below in the unfathomable depths something, the writer, the Crawler, rumbles along on its journey. This tower might be the centre of the disruption, and those who enter return changed in some unseen manner. Further towards the coast stands the lighthouse, a disturbing totem, site of the last stand of several previous expeditions (against what?), and, we find out later in the trilogy, the twin of one which stands on an island in the bay.

This first book is atmospheric beyond my wildest imagination. I genuinely felt my skin prickle with unseen eyes, I felt my breath catch at the expectation of infection from the spores in the air. And yet beyond the mystery of the tower, not much is different, except that it feels different. VanderMeer has done something truly remarkable with his vision of an alien landscape.

This develops further, but with spectacularly little explanation, in the second and third books. Okay, so we finally discover the provenance of Area X (although this does not help one bit), but no explanation is offered for the return of the biologist in book two, or rather, for what purpose the Ghost Bird as she calls herself at that point, returns to the world. It is telling that she returns not to her own home like those of the previous expedition who came back, but rather is found standing contemplatively in an oasis of urban nature, a disused and overgrown lot in her city. The familial and political intrigue of the Southern Reach, the (pseudo-)government agency in charge of Area X explored in Authority is a slow-rolling revelation, another unknowable organisation or organism, and as we realise the pervasive reach of Area X itself we can no longer trust anything that happens, with even the narrative view shifting within the books themselves. Book three ends with the psychologist, earlier disclosed as the former head of the Southern Reach, telling herself her own story:
You are still there for a moment, looking out over the sea toward the lighthouse and the beautiful awful brightness of the world. 
Before you are nowhere.
Before you are everywhere. 
Weird it may be, but it's wild and amazing too, concepts of epistemology and ecology sitting side-by-side in what some might be tempted to write off unfairly as genre fiction. I can't urge you strongly enough to pick up the first book at your earliest opportunity. You will not be sorry.


How's about that then?

The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek

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