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Southern Reach Review

     What follows will sound like a backhanded compliment, and I want to clarify that it is not intended that way.  Rather, it is stated in this way to highlight the skill of Jeff VanderMeer.

     The Southern Reach Trilogy is the best work I have read where basically nothing happens.

     Now, those of you that have read the series might be objecting quite loudly at this point.  A lot happens in the story.  There's an expedition to gather information about an unknown environmental occurrence.  There's shadowy government agencies.  There's mind-bending multi-dimensional/monster/alien/God-knows-what things happening.  There's verbal sparring.  There's guns.  Sometimes they even get fired.

     But you know what happens most of all?

     Navel gazing.

     Deep, deep, POV for these books.  First person for the first book, Third person for the second, and a mixture of second, third, and a tiny bit of first in the third book, as VanderMeer wraps up the loose ends.  And I loved every second of it.  While the narrating characters are telling us their impressions, memories, and impulses, they're telling us about themselves.  A judgment on someone they work with tells us more about the narrator than the object of their ire.  This POV lets us see the change the character adopts before the character has an inkling that they're changing.  Technically that's what good stories are supposed to do.  I think it's that VanderMeer does it without seeming like he's trying to, and that makes me buy it without thinking about it.  We're just inside the character's heads, and we happen to pick up on a few things they didn't realize they were sharing.  That they certainly wouldn't have shared if they had known we were there.  Because who these characters are and the image they want to project are far from the same.


"Desolation tries to colonize you."

     The reader enters the story from the point of view of the Biologist, a member of the 12th expedition team sent to study Area X.  The team enters Area X, which people once lived in, but some sort of disaster occurred and the wild has since taken over.  They find weird things.  They have to figure out how to deal with them, and figure out if they're losing it.
     The name "Area X" seemed cheesy to me at first, but I forgot about my pettiness in the wonder of the description of the place.  As a child, I spent a lot of time playing outdoors, and I particularly relished my time playing in the woods behind my house when we lived in New Hampshire.  The descriptions of the landscape and the fauna here stirred up echoes of that time and made me long for outdoor spaces devoid of the human touch again, although Area X is set in the Apalachee Bay area.
     The Biologist spends much of her time talking about her fellow researchers; passing judgments on them, evaluating them as specimens of their species.  She does this much more than she actually talks to them.  But she also talks about her husband, who was part of the 11th expedition.  She's called "the Biologist," because as part of their training, expedition members leave behind their names and instead become known as their functions.  We're told that this has helped members of previous expeditions fare better on their missions.  This is just one of the many odd accommodations expedition members are asked to make.  True to her scientific function, the Biologist remains ever the skeptic of what she is told without proof that she can directly observe.


"'How do you know if something is out of the ordinary when you don't know if your instruments would register the progressions?'"

   This book is told from the point of view of Control, the new director of the Southern Reach, the organization that sends expeditions into Area X.  He's worked in shadowy government organizations basically all of his career, so he's not intimidated by that particular subterfuge.  Rather, he feels like no one is telling him the most important information he needs to do his job; that they are waiting for the former director to return, although she is presumed dead.  The members of the 12th expedition return and need to be debriefed; need to share what they learned.  He feels like he's putting together a puzzle with no box and half the pieces, and lots of the pieces seem to be from different puzzles.
     This book in particular is a study in people talking past each other, in no one saying what they actually mean.  Control, who goes by this moniker as more of a hopeful expression of his ability rather than a name of a function, isn't getting any punches pulled for him, but he's not pulling many of his either.  His mother and her father worked and still work for shadowy government agencies (like the ambiguous Central), so he is used to never getting the whole story, but he usually is able to get mom and grandpa to pull strings to get it.  Not so much here.
     And being this much closer to Area X seems to make it that much more of an enigma.  The Southern Reach is so far past it's prime, the rot has developed it's own personality.  If departments haven't been excised, they're cut and combined, or downsized to a single person.  Control tours the science division and sees rows and rows of hazmat suits hanging from the ceiling, no longer in use, although the few members of the division still purport to be doing research on any number of things brought back from Area X.
     I sympathized with Control heavily in the beginning of this story because I was also starting a new job.  I knew how it was to meet everyone at once and retain no impressions at all; to pray that you're doing something right even though you feel like you're treading water at best.  That sympathy slipped as the book progressed, but he regained my appreciation in the third book.

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" gave up the right to call anything impossible when you decided to enter Area X."

     Differing from the first two books, the reader finds several storytellers in this book, both back story and forward story.  We hear from the former director and her personal mission before her disappearance.  We hear from the lighthouse keeper that lived in Area X before the disaster occurred, who narrates events leading up to and during that disaster.  In the forward story, we hear from Control, now even more out of his depth, and the returned Biologist, who calls herself Ghost Bird.  In the back story, something awful is happening.  In the forward story, something awful has happened.  Characters, again, try to figure out what to do and how to not lose it.  I really can't say much more than this without revealing more than I should, but trust me that if you read the first two books, you'll be getting to the third as quick as you can.
     I probably will make an exception for this book with the "nothing happens in these books" statement, mostly because this is where VanderMeer ties up most of the ends of the story, and answers most questions.

VanderMeer deals with some interesting themes in this series:
 - The POV choices highlight that we are limited in our problem solving and conclusions by our own experiences and prejudices, in addition to who we think we are and who we represent ourselves as are both different from our true nature.
 - The descriptions of various landscapes, populated and otherwise, touch on the idea of microcosms as representatives of a whole, fractal.
 - A thing is more than representative of where it is from, it could not be from anywhere else.
 - Nature doesn't need humanity, never needed us.
 - And even though VanderMeer uses language beautifully in these books, characters repeatedly harp on the limitations of language as a medium for communication (besides the fact that half the time you're questioning the reliability of your narrator).
 - Plus, there's a passage/poem that's repeated throughout all three books that will haunt you in the best way.

Long story short:  please read these books.  They're not fantasy, they're not sci-fi, they're not post-apoc, they're not literary, they're transcendent.  And I need someone to talk with about them that's also read them.  Plus, there's a movie set to come out from Paramount in 2017, with Natalie Portman as the Biologist and Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina, directing.  So.  Get on board.


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