The story begins with a hole in the ground. But not just a hole, of course. It resembles one of those medieval stone staircases that circle up the insides of old keeps, except in this case it descends deep into a loamy patch of ground. Most members of the expedition refer to it as a “tunnel.” The expedition’s biologist, who also functions as narrator of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” refers to it as “the tower.”
Through it, she, and you, are sucked into Area X, and the three-novel series about it that VanderMeer released over the course of eight months this year: “Annihilation,” “Authority,’”and “Acceptance,” the latter just out, aka the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Nothing beats being sucked into a story, and prolific speculative fiction author VanderMeer has had plenty of practice. In the Southern Reach books, he has hatched a narrative potent with Gothic chills, tantalizing ideas, contemporary resonances, and cliffhangers and big reveals around nearly every bend. Indeed, the novels serve as prime examples both of how popular narrative often works in the 21st century, and of the problems with that kind of narrative.
If you’re at all a fan of spec-fic, literary horror, or compulsive reads in any genre, go ahead and grab a copy of “Annihilation.” Just do it. At some point prior to the action of the first novel, an unknown force effectively dropped a nearly impermeable barrier around a large chunk of sparsely populated coastline, walling it off from the world. The Southern Reach, the top-secret agency in charge of keeping secret, containing, and deciphering what it dubbed Area X, has sent a number of expeditions through its only “door” (which is not really a door). Sometimes they come back with nothing. Sometimes they come back traumatized or terminally ill. Sometimes they don’t come back.
You will read for many pages before you realize that you haven’t been given a tangible description of “the border,” as it’s called, or where Area X is located. At that point you will realize that you’ve sort of roughed it out in your own head, and then you will wonder, what does it matter anyway? This will become a familiar sensation.
Spoiling what happens would spoil the fun. Suffice to say that VanderMeer proves adroit at doling out bits of information, touches of character, and endless clues, most of them just scrutable enough to lead you on. “Annihilation”manages to channel both Ballardian technocratic dystopia and Lovecraftian unearthly dread. It invokes both Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and the vintage computer game Myst. It also delivers a grim satire of the modern office. (Coworkers: Can’t trust ’em, can’t shoot at ’em with an assault rifle.) When you finish it, you will be thrilled at the prospect of proceeding immediately to the next installment.
The first novel’s keep-you-guessing style hooks you, and it also feels eerily familiar. And as you plunge ahead into the subsequent novels, it becomes apparent why. “Authority” shifts from Area X to the Southern Reach complex, and an almost entirely new cast of characters. (VanderMeer’s characters are fairly well drawn, but not so much that most of them don’t divide into two camps: black-ops middle managers maneuvering in the shadows of conniving superiors and the misinformed dupes that they send into the breach.) The new setting also brings new mysteries, new questions, and new answers. They bring with them red herrings, unsatisfying turns, tedious subplots, and dud reveals.
The tower starts to remind you of another mysterious hole in the ground with a reality-altering secret in its depths. The Southern Reach brings to mind another black-ops bureaucracy beset by conspiracy and backbiting. The Southern Reach trilogy shares its addictive mix of “what happened next” and “what the hell” with “Lost,” with “The X-Files” “mythology” episodes, and what seems like half of today’s series television and other serial fictions. It also shares their ultimate disappointments.
Ever since Laura Palmer turned up dead, a certain subset of popular storytellers has let their imaginations run wild and used the uncanny to paper over the gaps in logic. When you don’t know where all the twists are taking, it can be intoxicating. When you weary of twists and start to long for catharsis, closure, an end of some kind, you tend to get a damp-squib version formed from whatever loose ends still dangle. There is no satisfactory answer because there is no answer.
The sinister office politics glide forward on narrative momentum carried over from the first novel. “Acceptance” coasts to stasis as it strays from the central plotline to illuminate dim corners of the Area X saga, including flashbacks and quality time with several characters who are not among those you’re most eager to get to know better.
Even the prose, polished and efficiently transparent throughout, seems to degenerate in the final book.
As they headed inland, the larger things fell away, revealing the indelible: the dark line of a marsh hawk flying low over the water, the delicate fractures in the water where a water moccasin swam, the strangely satisfying long grass that cascaded like hair from the ground.
The above, from a preview edition of “Acceptance,” may be evidence of VanderMeer abandoning effortlessness to mimic and convey the unglued realities of Area X. It reads more like bad writing.
Hypnotism plays a role in the story, and by the time “Acceptance” ends, you feel your frustration ebbing almost as if by sub-rosa suggestion. You assemble in your own head whatever sense there is to make, and what else does it matter anyway? If you find yourself sucked into “Annihilation” and manage to stop there, you’ll enjoy one of the singular reading pleasures of the year. If you continue, you may not like what you find. But can you resist finding out what’s at the bottom of the hole in the ground?