I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Jeff VanderMeer’s first two books in his SOUTHERN REACH series, Annihilation and Authority, end up on my top ten list for the year, so it was with great excitement and high expectations that I opened up Acceptance, the third and final book of the trilogy. Having finished, I can’t honestly say those expectations were wholly met, though my lack of satisfaction has less to do with any real complaints about the novel itself and more about the question I had at the end, which was, if it was still a good novel, was it a necessary one? Thinking about it a day later, I’m still not sure about the answer to that.
While I’m going to try as much as possible to avoid spoilers for Acceptance (which admittedly may make this review somewhat vague at times), it will be hard to do the same for the first two books. Fair warning.
Acceptance picks up shortly after Authority, and much more so than the prior two novels, either of which could have stood on its own, it needs to be read in context (i.e. after reading the first ones) as so much depends upon knowledge of earlier events. Annihilation dealt with the exploration by the latest in a string of expeditions of “Area X”, a weird anomaly on the coastal US that has been abandoned for decades, cut off from the “normal” world by a deadly barrier that has only one entryway. For years, a governmental agency, the Southern Reach, has been sending these teams into Area X, always to horrifically tragic ends. We follow the Twelfth Expedition through the first-person POV of the Biologist as they discover amidst the oddly pristine wilderness an underground chamber filled with strange writing. Eventually, the Biologist descends into the chamber.
In Authority, VanderMeer shifted the focus from Area X to the Southern Reach bureaucracy. The Biologist (now calling herself Ghost Bird) has mysteriously reappeared on our side of the barrier, and the new Director of the Southern Reach, who asks to be called Control, tries to figure how that happened, why she seems different, what happened to the twelfth and prior expeditions, and finally, what is it in Area X that is reshaping that portion of our world and can anything be done to stop it?
Acceptance returns to Area X, as have the two main characters from the previous novels — Ghost Bird and Control. As they further explore Area X, aiming at first for the island that has been mentioned but not yet seen, the book moves backwards and forwards in time, shifting points of view amongst Ghost Bird, Control, the former director of the Southern Reach (the psychologist in Annihilation), and Saul — the lighthouse keeper in Area X before it was Area X, in other words, just before the anomaly, whatever it is, happened.
That, “whatever it is” is of course one of the larger questions of the series: What is Area X? And following not too far behind are How is Area X doing what it is doing and Why is Area X doing what it is doing? Does VanderMeer answer the questions?
Well, I guess it depends on the meaning of answer. We do get some answers, that’s for sure. And we also get some theories. But a lot is left open, something I’d say is to be expected because it seems to me that one of the major subjects of this series (and I could be wrong both on the subject idea and on the idea that some things are not answered — maybe they were and just sailed over my head), is what happens when human beings confront the unknowable. The truly strange. The truly incommunicable. I think as a reader I would have felt it a bit of a cop out had everything been explained, so I for one am glad of this feeling that it was not.
Another aspect of Acceptance that adds to a sense that not all is known is that even when we get theories, we get them from people who themselves admit (or make it clear in other ways) that they don’t know a heck of a lot, and who are, let’s just say, not always in the clearest frame of mind. Add to this a major sense of temporal dislocation as the many shifting time frames begin to blur one into the other, constant references to “messages” being sent but not understood, and just-as-constant references to worlds behind worlds: copies, doppelgängers, reflections, hybrids, and the reader, or at least this reader, is left standing on always shifting sands. On a strange beach. Under unfamiliar skies. With weird people. Who talk funny. And maybe the reader did a little acid. And had a beer or seven. And. Well, you get the point.
In a novel that focuses on the unknowable and the incommunicable, plot would seem to be a rather low priority, and I’d say that has been true throughout the series. What seems most important in the trilogy is not how the plot happens but how the books feel. In the prior novels VanderMeer proved himself a master of the creeping dread. I found this less true in Acceptance, perhaps because there was less of it or perhaps because I’d seen/felt it before and so it was less creepy because it was more familiar (though, in some ways, familiarity can make things more creepy, especially with doppelgängers). I also felt I saw a little too much of the man behind the curtain, whom I would have preferred more hidden — too many references to mirrors, to copies, to reflections. A few serve to unify a novel, express a theme, too many begin to distract, and that’s how I felt here.
Too, because Acceptance was less steeped in atmosphere for me, plot became more noticeable, and there were several times where the book slowed a bit too much for me, where it became a little repetitive, or felt as if we were traveling for the sake of traveling to fill in some time between flashbacks. In many ways, just as little “happened” in the other two books, but I was so unconcerned with “happening” that it didn’t matter. Here, it did. I think plot felt thin to me as well because I had never felt while reading the first two books that I needed, or even wanted, answers or explanations as to how Area X came to be, why it came to be, and so forth. In fact, I said in my review of Authority that I would have been perfectly happy if it had ended there.
On the other hand, it’s true there is a lot to admire and enjoy in Acceptance. The writing at a sentence level is consistently superb — sharp, vivid, often highly original, and as in the prior two novels, VanderMeer’s prose really shines when it comes to descriptions of the natural world. Saul is a wonderful creation of a character and while I’m not sure I needed to be back in time with him, I enjoyed every moment I spent with him, and thought the sections showing him interacting with young Gloria and with his lover Charles were warmly, realistically related. And when VanderMeer wants to offer up some emotional heft, he falls into a lovely cadence of language that moves the reader as much via sound and style as by what is being described.
Along with the above-mentioned subjects, I’d say isolation is another theme throughout the series, and VanderMeer has created a slew of characters who feel isolated, who are seen as or see themselves as “other” in many ways. The biologist is called anti-social, Control has family issues, Saul is a homosexual at a time when it was considered “deviant” (not to mention being a lighthouse keeper is pretty much the symbol of the isolated human), Ghost Bird wonders how human she is, if at all. Failure to communicate is a form of isolation. And of course, the isolation presented is also that of being isolated from nature, from the world that surrounds us, isolated even from our own day-to-day lives. Acceptance details this isolation in sundry ways and explores it movingly and thoughtfully.
Finally, on a more ground level construction-pragmatics note, authors of trilogies/series could do worse than to take lessons from VanderMeer on how to slide in reminders of previous events, who slips these sly references in almost unnoticed so that the reader has all the information they need from prior books without even knowing they’re being fed these recaps.
Partway through Acceptance, one of the characters wonders:
if perhaps so many journals had piled up in the lighthouse because on some level most came, in time, to recognize the futility of language. Not just in Area X but against the rightness of the lived-in moment, the instant of touch, of connection, for which words were such a sorrowful disappointment, so inadequate an expression of both the finite and the infinite.
That’s a hell of a statement for an author to toss into a novel made up wholly of language. And yet, it does get at the heart of not just this book but also the series as a whole. I guess if language is futile, I can’t get too bent out of shape if Acceptance didn’t quite match my expectations or even felt a little, well, unnecessary. But despite being an exercise in futility, this series as a whole, and several of the scenes in this concluding novel, pack a wallop. One that will linger for some time after you close the pages. Not only do I highly recommend this series, but I strongly recommend budgeting yourself the time to read it not as three books over a lengthy period of time, but as a single story read in as few sittings as possible so that you can better catch its haunting echoes, and be more fully enveloped in its strangely wonderful world.
Kat is currently listening to the audio version, so I asked her to report on that:
Well, Bill, I’m halfway through Acceptance and completely agree with your assessment so far. Plot-wise it is slow moving, and I didn’t need the clever recaps because these books have been published so close together that readers should easily recall previous events. The creepy atmosphere is wonderfully done, again, but personally I want a few more answers than you do. I’m intrigued by the physics of this backward world, but I think I will get enough information to satisfy me.
The audio version is produced by Blackstone Audio and is 9.5 hours long. The narration is done by the Carolyn McCormick and Bronson Pinchot, who narrated the first two books, and Xe Sands. They are excellent, as always, and are able to really bring out the creepy vibe. I noticed a few production errors such as shifting volumes or obvious patches, but I listened to a pre-release copy and these will probably be smoothed out in the version that readers purchase. And, if not, they certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story. This series is a perfect choice for audio, so I recommend it heartily.
~Bill Capossere & Kat Hooper
(Warning, this review may contain spoilers for the two previous SOUTHERN REACH books, Annihilation and Authority.)
If the reader believes the best theory put forth by the characters in Acceptance, the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, then it is the most original use of a certain standard SF trope that I’ve ever read. I do choose to believe the theory because it fits most of the… well, information — I can’t really use the word “facts” — we are given and because the author appears to confirm the theory later in the book.
That said, while Acceptance has rich, layered prose, strange, startling imagery and a fascinating premise, I didn’t find it especially satisfying. Like some famous or powerful people, I find it easy to admire but hard to love.
First of all, you must read Annihilation and Authority before you try Acceptance. The conceit of three separate books, which worked well for the first two, breaks down here. The main storyline in Acceptance starts, maybe, moments after Authority ended. I say “maybe” because time, like other things, functions differently in Area X, where much of the story takes place. We follow two characters from the government base at the Southern Reach, a woman who calls herself Ghost Bird, who looks just like the biologist from a previous expedition into Area X, and a man named John Rodriguez, who nicknamed himself Control. They are both forging farther into Area X, heading toward an island that has figured in both previous books.
The book also moves around in time, and gives us some backstory on the previous Director of Southern Reach, set up to study Area X thirty years previously (or is it even longer?), and the lighthouse keeper Saul.
Acceptance moves more slowly than the other two, but I didn’t mind that. I was interested to find out more about Saul, who lived at the lighthouse before Area X really began to change. Saul, who is potentially the most interesting character in the book (and has been a mystery in the first two) is disappointing here; just another person having strange experiences. The backstory of Saul’s journey from brimstone preacher to tranquil lighthouse keeper, with a lover his father would have hated, was intriguing, but ultimately only existed to support the weirdness of Area X. Saul’s lover is not developed, and the town where they go in the evenings has an ad hoc quality, literally — the bar is almost a “pop up bar.” For the amount of time we spent with Saul, we could have gotten to know him better. The trajectory of Saul’s transformation (everyone in Area X is changed in some way) is jerky, although this seems mostly due to structural issues.
To be fair, in Saul’s experience we see the kind of thing VanderMeer does so well that it’s scary; the nondescript, ordinary-looking people who become scarier and more disturbing as the book continues. In Authority, we watched through Control’s eyes as Whitby played this role. In Acceptance, Saul is baffled and ultimately threatened by Henry and Suzanne of the Science and Séance Brigade. They have a silly organization name and cart around strange equipment, appearing at first both eccentric and ineffectual. Gradually they become sinister, in shockingly mundane ways, as when Suzanne makes a sandwich in Saul’s kitchen without asking. Such a simple thing, but such a transgression of boundaries, which is what the SOUTHERN REACH books are all about.
There are brilliantly creepy moments here. In the Director’s viewpoint, there is a scene that is wrong and strange (wonderfully so) when she comes across Whitby doing something to a mouse he has caught. The sentence by sentence descriptions, as the Director approaches Whitby from the back, are neck-tinglingly suspenseful, and the detail of Whitby’s hands and the mouse are still with me. The story of the biologist, and the moment when Ghost Bird stands eye to eye with her own past, are excellent. Although the island lighthouse never had the impact on me that VanderMeer seems to want it to, the play of the on-shore lighthouse tower and the “anomaly,” the inverted tower that leads deep into the earth, remain for me the most powerful symbols of Area X.
As far as re-creating for the reader the same experience Control and the Director have had of making sense of things; a story “untold” rather than “told,” with clues and plot points left on the torn-out pages we never read, the missing file we never see, the whispered sentence we never quite decipher, VanderMeer nails it. I’m not saying I enjoyed this experience, but I appreciate how thoroughly it was created.
VanderMeer obviously works very hard on his prose and it is beautiful. He brings to the SOUTHERN REACH books a strong understanding of nature. Area X is strange, but a lot of that strangeness is the sense of dislocation some of us, raised with lawns and vegetable patches, fenced yards and city parks, feel when we are out in nature, far enough from city noises, streetlights and cars to truly experience its immensity. One of the mysteries of Area X is that in some areas, existing contamination and pollution is gone and the ecosystems are “pristine.” In Area X, whatever else is happening, life and nature are carrying on with no regard for the desires, notions, dreams and political alliances of humans.
So, while I would have liked a character to care about, I found Acceptance admirable. I think VanderMeer accomplished what he set out to do in the trilogy. Anyone trying to create a sense of dislocation, of “otherness,” should read this series.
As this was one of my all-time favorite projects to work on, I am thrilled that you’re enjoying it in both print and audio! Thanks for the very thoughtful review, both of you.
Wow. You have done a fantastic job of talking about the creepiness of this without spoiling AT ALL. Nice work.
And that was NOT easy!
Nice review Marion–think we mostly tracked pretty similar on this one
Bill, I think we came at it from different directions, and ended up in the same place. Which, perhaps, is a fine analogy for the entire trilogy.