Southern Reach Trilogy: ACCEPTANCE by Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Trilogy has been a polarizing reading experience for me; mostly because of the meandering second installment Authority. That being the case, I don't think I could give this entire series a perfect grade in spite of all the overwhelmingly positive reviews it got from a lot of critics and even veteran authors like Stephen King himself. There are, however, amazing aspects to the first and third novels that I really found myself deeply immersed in, and these deserve due credit for this review. The one thing that stopped it from becoming one of of my top favorite sci-fi novels (next to Frank Herbret's DUNE, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) is most probably because of its experimental nature that was unevenly delivered and executed on paper. 

An off-beat favorite sci-fi books of mine that was not a classic like the ones aforementioned is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. Much like that one, The Southern Reach trilogy focused on different character perspectives for each book with varied themes and narratives. But where Specimen Days only accomplished its purpose in one book divided into three interconnected stories, this series became a trilogy--but not exactly a trifecta that I always enjoyed. The Lost-esque influence invoked the same feelings as that show did, but much like said TV show, this trilogy has problems with consistency which a less critical reader may overlook because of the many flashes of brilliance that Annihilation and Acceptance have exhibited. I was swept by those installments but Authority still left a bitter aftertaste.

But this review is about the final piece of the trilogy, and it was quite the unexpected treat. Still reeling from the unpleasantness that was my experience with the second book, I almost gave up on finishing this trilogy. The two things that prevented me from not calling it quits are (1) I always stick to my self-imposed readables and (2) I have hard copies of all of these books, and it would be a damn shame to just let the last book of the series sit there untouched from my shelf. Besides, I'm still interested in finding out about the pay-off, and if the mysteries will be solved. The characters, actually, were the least interesting part of the trilogy for me. And that is why this sci-fi series didn't strike an emotional chord unlike with the other. I connected little with them because The Southern Reach trilogy is foremost plot-centered, and I've mentioned a lot of times that I enjoy character-centric stories and this trilogy is hardly that.

With that in mind, Acceptance came as a pleasant surprise to me. While Annihilation was supposed to be a story of the alienation one feels whilst trapped in a wilderness, and Authority was about the paranoia of losing control over one's own memories and actions, Acceptance was more or less the long-awaited finale where everything comes into focus; and the questions that the characters have asked and mulled upon in the first two books received answers that didn't exactly give them the closure they're all looking for--but it's all there is anyway. Acceptance also had varied POVs unlike the first two books which were limited third-person perspectives of the biologist and the new director of the Southern Reach, John Rodriguez. Here, we get the two of their accounts mixed in with the psychologist/former director's second-person POV which detailed her fixations and desperate search for answers about her home that became what is now Area X, and Saul Evans' accounts, and he was known only as the lighthouse keeper who may have been Area X's first "victim".

It's quite an exercise of mental endurance to read this trilogy, honestly, especially with a meandering middle installment, but Acceptance proved for me that the journey will be worth it. I did care about the characters in some way but more as representations of deeply-rooted fears and insecurities that humans have when faced with something they could not comprehend or even co-exist properly with. Area X is viewed as a contamination, a vast of unknowable wilderness spilling into human civilization without any adequate explanation or readily understood malicious intentions. This was what was frustrating about is progress of growth as it spreads across the globe. Countless clandestine expeditions have been sent to gather data, all of them pointless, while authority figures in Southern Reach have kept the deception going even to the scientists and experts in their field who joined the expeditions. One of them was the biologist who chose to stay behind Area X and become a part of its ecosystem. She's actually the only character in this trilogy I connected with since Annihilation. Her fifty pages or so of accounts here in this book had to be my favorite.

This final installment offered so many great things for readers to chew on and enjoy because of the many different accounts that were evenly spread out across its three-hundred-plus pages of narrative. Every voice was compelling even if certain scenes or even concepts don't entirely make sense. Area X is an anomaly and is more than just an infestation growing on Earth. There must be something alien-like about it; maybe it's even a doorway leading to another dimension--no one really knows or could be absolutely certain. Being faced with the inevitability of extinction for humans will always be a disconcerting theme explored by science fiction novels but The Southern Reach trilogy takes it to a more intimate and claustrophobic level of hopelessness. Its constant mentions of a 'brightness' infiltrating a human person's vessel was quite alarming--one would think the description should be that of a darkness or a black hole that could consume someone to nothingness. But no, author VanderMeer named it as a 'brightness' that his characters cannot escape from.

This review is spoiler-free because I don't want to discuss the revelations and certain key moments in all three books if any of you did decide to read the trilogy yourselves. What I can say was that it's an uneven, inconsistent story yet endlessly engrossing and dismantling once you get to the passages that are haunted and poignant. I will always find the second installment Authority wasteful and the least interesting of the series, but it was a necessary one because it established some plot points that need exposure before we get to the finale. I could still recommend The Southern Reach trilogy. It was beautifully written because VanderMeer does have a gift for descriptive language in a way that I think elevates the genre into something poetic. What I'm only critical with, however, was that it could get self-indulgent that character development had become hollow for others, and the pacing a tad too leisurely if not entirely wasteful.

This was a great series that deserves its praise, but I caution readers to check your expectations at the door before going into exploring what this trilogy offers. You may find yourself too lost in it, whether because you are entranced by its writing and landscapes, or because you couldn't make sense of anything and therefore left disappointed in the end. Fortunately, I'm in between caught between those two receptions.




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