These books are weird. Like…really weird.
But it’s their weirdness that makes them so fascinating.
The Southern Reach trilogy is a series of books that revolve around a place known as Area X, a patch of now uninhabited wilderness that’s being slowly changed by an unseen force. The official story to the outside world is that of an ecological disaster, but the reality is far more sinister and unknown. “Southern Reach” refers to the organization tasked with investigating the mysterious phenomenon.
The first book is called “Annihilation”. You might recognize the title, as the book was made into a movie that released back in March. However, the movie diverges from the book quite a bit, so even if you’ve seen the movie you won’t know exactly what to expect.
“Annihilation” opens with four characters standing in front of a strange tower leading underground in Area X. They are known only by their specialties. There is the Biologist, the Surveyor, the Psychologist, and the Anthropologist. Their task is to investigate Area X and see what they can find out about it. Early on, it is revealed that the Biologist (played by Natalie Portman in the movie) had a husband who was on the expedition prior to hers and died from cancer after returning under mysterious circumstances. “Annihilation” plays out like you would expect from a science-fiction story about people undertaking an expedition into an unknown area: bad stuff happens, people die, paranoia sets in, and so on. Unlike the movie, “Annihilation” ends on an uncertain note, leaving things up in the air.
The second book, “Authority”, takes a deeper look at the Southern Reach organization itself. Our main character is John Rodriguez, who takes to calling himself “Control”. He is sent into the Southern Reach to become its new director, and he investigates the aftermath of the expedition from the first book as well as the organization itself. This one reads more akin to a thriller or a spy novel, with subterfuge and secrets abound. This book is actually a lot more about the character of Control/John rather than Area X itself, although Area X is never far from the forefront for too long.
“Acceptance” is the final book of the trilogy, and is rightfully the most complex one. Unlike the previous two books, which had a fairly linear chronology (“Authority” does have some flashbacks, but through Control reflecting on past events), “Acceptance” has three major viewpoints taking place over a wide span of time, one of which actually takes place before Area X happens and details events leading up to its creation. Long-lingering questions are answered and we get a deeper look into some characters that were only referenced from afar in the previous books. I hesitate to say much more about it for fear of spoilers.
My favorite of the series definitely has to be “Acceptance”. I’ve always enjoyed disjointed chronologies in stories, and “Acceptance” weaved a non-linear, complex narrative that was a joy to follow. “Acceptance” also has the tightest pacing of the three books. The series definitely is a slow burn (especially in “Authority”), which isn’t a bad thing. But “Acceptance” definitely makes the best use of that burn, with scenes that can go from being perfectly normal to slightly unnerving to downright disturbing in an elegantly smooth fashion. There’s a particular scene at a bar very late in the book that really sticks out in my mind as just getting progressively more unnerving before everything just goes to hell.
And that’s my favorite thing about this series: the unrelenting weirdness and tension that’s present throughout the books. There’s a moment in the second book, “Authority”, where things just suddenly hit the fan in such a jarring, unexpected way that it’s actually brilliant. It makes you question if it’s actually happening or not at first. And I’ve always been a fan of horror and horror-tinged stories (something readers of this blog undoubtedly know at this point), so this trilogy was right up my alley.
If you like weird sci-fi, then I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s just so bizarre and unique that I can’t say I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Some stuff is left open to interpretation in the end, which might bother some people, but to me the ambiguity is what stays with us after the story is done. It’s what keeps our minds churning over and over, trying to gleam the last elusive details that will give us the answers we want.
So yeah, give the books a shot. Get weirded out. It’s a fun time.
Thanks for reading! Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.