Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Southern Reach Trilogy

The first two installments of Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach Trilogy" are, to my mind, perfect summer reads—in fact, damn good reads any time of the year. Smart, exciting, well-written, plot-perfect, psychological, they drop you into a world that is familiar but has somehow gone strange; soon you find yourself inside the brains of the complex but damaged and incomplete characters as they grope their way toward understanding the new strangeness, the mysteries of their own personal histories, and how the two might be related.

I have read a number of science fiction novels in which alien (maybe?) biologies arrive and start making trouble not just with the natural world but with human minds and personalities—Octavia Butler comes to mind—but part of what makes VanderMeer's new novels so compelling is how he successfully welds the exobiology weirdness onto superbly executed genre conventions. The first novel, Annihilation, is at core a survival adventure story: there's a bit of Hunger Games for grownups here. The follow-up, Authority, which I devoured mostly in one sitting between San Francisco and Chicago, is in considerable part an old-fashioned detective or spy procedural—as if Dalgleish or Smiley had to figure out not who but what dunnit... and indeed, just what it dunn...

All of this is more than enough: sharp writing and storytelling with plenty of unsettling weirdness and confusion to keep you on edge. But if you're a nature nut like I am, you will particularly appreciate the way VanderMeer creates a sense of natural place; in fact he has a special penchant for the human places that have been partly reclaimed by nature: the unmaintained swimming pool, the vacant lot, the abandoned lighthouse. These places have a special terroir, to use a term that plays an important part in the second book. We normally think of such places in terms of decay, entropy, a return to purposeless natural chaos. But what if some entity were planning the decay by design—if the mildew and rot were connected to an intelligence beyond human comprehension, with designs perhaps linked to our own actions and purposes. That would be interesting, wouldn't it? And scary.

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