Monday 12 May 2014

Southern Reach volume 2: Review

Below the review of the first is a review for the second in the series. If you've not yet read the first book go do so now. This post will wait for you. If you have read the first and don't want to know anything about the second (and I understand that urge) then again, this post will wait for you.

Annihilation: A Novel (Southern Reach…

Area X has been contained behind the border for 30 years

So starts the first book in a new trilogy from Jeff Vandermeer. The Southern Reach has sent 11 expeditions into Area X. Many of them have failed to come back, or have come back changed Our narrator is one of 4 in the 12th expedition, she is a biologist and joins a psychologist, surveyor and anthropologist. This is her story. This is the story of the 12th expedition. This is the story of, well let’s not reveal too much here shall we?

This is an example of isolation fiction with a hearty dollop of paranoia on top of the fear and mystery. VanderMeer weaves a web of wicked weirdness that conceals to reveal. We have so many questions that are not answered and may never be but this is because the mystery is, well mysterious. Our narrator is no more clued up than we are and, crucially, compromised. Can we trust her? Can we trust anyone on the team? Can we trust The Southern Reach? Why aren’t expeditions allowed to take cameras, or telecoms, or most other modern technology but are allowed to take guns? What is the true purpose of the expeditions? What is Area X? What is the significance of the Lighthouse? Do we really want to know what the strange noises in the night are? Why did the Biologist join the expedition?

There are several VanderMeerisms (yes that is a word) that will appeal to fans of his earlier work (no spoilers but I bet you can guess what I mean) but this is a slightly different tale to those he has told before. He describes a real and lush landscape in almost cinematic terms. He also manages to make it feel uncanny with a few deft touches and therefore even though the palette is light he achieves a darker tale. I was in the story from the first paragraph, rushing gladly through the book simultaneously desperate to know what was going to happen and deeply dreading knowing in case that knowledge were to change me irrevocably.

It will be compared to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys no doubt and possibly Dark Matter By Michelle Paver and there are brief elements of familiarity here if you are well read in the Weird. However VanderMeer has carved a compelling and fresh tale that may owe a passing nod to Lovecraft but only in the same way that a modern car would owe a nod to a Model T. If any complaint were to be levelled at this it would be that we are forced to wait some months before the second in the trilogy is released. Will we get our answers in that tome? Do we want answers? Perhaps it’s safer not to know.

Overall – I can only describe this as VanderMeerian (yes that is also a word) in its brilliance. If you’re a fan of VanderMeer go, buy, read! If you’re not a fan of VanderMeer why the hell not?

Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach…

In the aftermath of the 12th expedition we follow "Control" the nom de guerre of the new director of the Southern Reach. Some of the questions in the first book are answered but many mysteries remain, are deepened in fact. This is different in tone and style and yet the two books are so inextricably linked that whilst reading this volume I had to several times resist the urge to go back and re-read Annihilation. When I have completed all three books I can imagine re-reading all three as a "whole".

I won't go into the plot - that's a doorway you'll have to cross by yourself. This is less dream-like (although relies, in part, on dreams to build the experience) and less pared down than Annihilation but feels like a layering on of information, themes, character, plot, sense of place, and, to use a term from the book (and the wine world), terroir. It is a deeply sensuous experience that I gorged myself upon. Another reason to re-read once all three have been ravenously consumed will be to take it slower and appreciate the craft. For to be sure there is much craft in these books to admire.

Comparisons are useless, this is idiosyncratic and it is obvious that much thought and care has been put into this as a book, as the second in a trilogy, as a bridge, as a complex exploration of transformation and immersion. Everything becomes significant, it is like being indoctrinated by a conspiracy theorist. It is both a reflection and an intermingling with the first book. Themes are re-explored, re-examined, deepened. Throughout, as per the word Annihilation in the first book, I was considering – what is authority?, what is control? There is a Russian doll feel to it. Turn over a phrase and find a concept which when considered is but a layer of a greater theme which in turn is reflected in character development, or description, or dialogue. Throughout is a key uncertainty, which in itself is another theme – surface detail is a concealment, an obfuscation of the truth, or is it?

Adding to this is the very form of the story. Presented in a paranoid spy thriller atmosphere as organisational politics meets intelligence meets counter-intelligence. Power struggles, suspicions, revelations, tug-of-war manoeuvres and the use of hypnosis (itself a recurrence of something explored in Annihilation) conspire to keep you immersed and engaged.

VanderMeer has parcelled out information, seemingly generously (in comparison to Annihilation) and yet the mystery remains and is, if anything, deeper following this book. At the end of Annihilation I wanted answers and yet wasn’t sure I’d like what the answers were and was simultaneously eager and afraid of reading the next book. At the end of Authority I wanted the next book to be there to hand, to tear straight into, the level of suspense and anticipation has been built to fever pitch.

Overall – This is a book and a series that deserves all the praise. I expect prizes in the future.

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