Book Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer

With the big-screen adaptation of the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, opening February 23, it’s time to take a look at this acclaimed science fiction/horror trilogy.

All three books of VanderMeer’s trilogy (the trilogy order is Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) were written at the same time and published within a 7 month time period. They chart the efforts of a shadowy government agency named The Southern Reach dedicated to studying and exploring an area (referred to as “Area X”) recently reclaimed by nature. As the trilogy progresses, the story expands from a single expedition into Area X to show the working of The Southern Reach and ultimately the very beginnings of Area X.

These books are unusual among science fiction in that they treat biology and psychology with the same scientific rigor that is so frequently reserved for physics and engineering. One of the primary protagonists (the primary protagonist in the first book, Annihilation) is a biologist, and she spends a great deal of time studying and discussing the biological aspects of the eerie Area X. Much of the horror comes from the biology present in Area X as well—there are horrifically mutated monsters that don’t make biological sense according to Earthly logic.

The horror aspect of the novel is incredibly effective. I read Annihilation incredibly quickly because I had an almost palpable sense of dread as I was reading. I simply couldn’t put it down because I knew some new biological horror was just around the corner! There is an almost Lovecraftian aspect to the horror that creeps up on the reader, which I appreciated. The trilogy as a whole is an intense, satisfying, literary read. It explores power dynamics, biology, psychology, the way humans treat the natural world, and so much more. I was particularly fond of the way each subsequent book peels back new layers into the situation at The Southern Reach and Area X. Much of what you thought to be true in Annihilation is revealed to be incomplete knowledge, if not outright wrong over the course of Authority. Likewise, the insights you had thanks to Annihilation and Authority become suspect as you read Acceptance!

Get a jump on the movie and check out Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a very different sort of experience than most science fiction or most horror books, but worth the effort!

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