2018-03-29

Book Review: Annihilation and the Southern Reach Trilogy


I recently watched the movie Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and I loved it. I thought it was a brilliant philosophical exposition on the nature of life itself, of being an organism and what it means for organisms to be conscious and exist. It was weird, frightening, exciting, and fun.

I loved it so much, that I went out and bought the trilogy of books upon which the movie is based: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by James Vandemeer. As I read them, I found them to be wildly different from Annihilation the movie. So much so that this is yet another in a long list of examples in which Hollywood doesn’t just water down or abridge a book, they completely change the story into something almost entirely new. There are seeds of the books in the movie, and there are common themes, but most of the events that occur in the movie never happen in the book. Most of what happens in the book isn’t even referenced in the movie, and the few events that survive the translation end up being expressed as sort of “composites.” The movie’s version of the lighthouse, for example, is actually a composite of three different locations in the book series. That’s a rather big change, and it’s emblematic of just exactly what kinds of changes were made to the storyline.

Now having experienced both stories, I can unequivocally say that I like them both. I might even like the movie a little better. But each must be approached differently, as though they are two separate and unrelated stories. Doing this will ensure that experiencing both is entertaining, each in its own separate way.

At this point, I’d like to present a review of the book series.

Before I get started, let me begin by warning you: There will probably be spoilers throughout this review. It’s impossible to discuss this kind of story without discussing particular events in the book. This book review is probably best enjoyed by people who have read all three books already. With those caveats out of the way, let’s begin.

I. The Plot And Scope
At its core, the Southern Reach Trilogy is a story about a strange, supernatural presence that occupies a remote patch of coastline, somewhere in the Southern USA. The occupied region, called Area X, is surrounded by an invisible or barely visible “border” that causes anything that touches it to… disappear? Transport? Relocate? No one knows. There is, however, a “door” or portal of some kind that allows people in and out of Area X, and a secret government agency called The Southern Reach is in charge of figuring out what Area X is and what to do about it. For decades, they’ve been sending small scientific expeditions into Area X. Some members of these expeditions return haunted by what they see, others die inside Area X, others come back almost as different people, and often those who return die of aggressive cancer.

The Southern Reach Trilogy follows a set of characters as they each interact with Area X in their own way. There is “The Biologist,” who is sent into Area X on an expedition; “The Director,” who was once director of the Southern Reach, but ultimately disappears into Area X; “Control,” the Director’s newly appointed replacement, “Ghost Bird,” a returnee from Area X, and “The Lighthouse Keeper,” who lived in Area X before it became occupied by the mysterious presence. The books are told from the perspective of these characters, and there are of course additional characters who play an important role in the story. Annihilation is told entirely from the perspective of The Biologist, Authority is told entirely from the perspective of Control, and Acceptance is told from all of the various characters’ perspectives, on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

So, here we have a story told over three separate novels, from the perspective of several characters whose stories interweave variously, about a mysterious and terrifying area of the country that is possessed by something that may either be an environmental catastrophe, an alien lifeform, a supernatural haunting, a government conspiracy, or a portal into another dimension. Obviously, the telling of a story like this is a massive undertaking. Indeed, it might be one of the most ambitious writing projects of the last decade or two.

II. Criticism
With any undertaking this large, there are some high points and some low points. We no longer live in the age of Herman Melville, so it’s difficult or impossible to expect a present-day novelist to produce a trilogy of books that is airtight in its storytelling and literary quality. Still, the scope of Vandemeer’s project is so grand that the reader expects more to it than we actually get, and I’m frankly left scratching my head, wondering why I didn’t get what I expected.

For one thing, there’s the problem of characters and events in the story that simply peter out. Vandemeer spills a lot of ink, for example, on a mysterious sub-plot involving the Psychologist from the second-to-last “Eleventh Expedition.” This character plays prominently in all three books, each of the story’s main characters interacts with him in a different way. The character suffers a grisly fate, and we receive many hints along the way about that fate’s being caused by one character, or linked to another character. And yet, we never find out exactly what happened to this character, why he suffered the fate he suffered, what caused it, and indeed there isn’t even any climax to the sub-plot. Eventually, the story simply moves on and none of the characters are even really impacted by it. So why was this sub-plot there in the first place? I can’t help but wonder if perhaps there was more to this sub-plot, but it didn’t survive the editing process. As a result, we have page after page wasted on vague descriptions of a character whose fate we never really learn and whose existence contributes nothing to the plot.

Another character, Whitby, prominent in the second and third books, seemingly exists to add tension and mystery to the story; but there’s already plenty of that without him. As the story unfolds, we learn a little bit more about the character, and we learn that he suffered a terrible experience of his own. But what, precisely, happens to Whitby and how it connects him to some of the other events in the novel is left unclear. This, too, is another false lead. We read on and on, expecting the mystery of Whitby to reveal itself, but it never does.

In Authority, we learn of the existence and contents of video footage from the First Expedition into Area X. Terrifying and surreal events unfold in that footage, and those events are oddly specific. That is, we learn about specific images in the film footage, we hear specific words, and we even become aware of a female inhabitant of Area X who may be behind some of the seemingly supernatural horrors. But what the First Expedition sees and experiences is never made known at any point in the story, beyond the viewing of the film footage, and those events are never tied to any of the main characters’ own experiences with Area X. The images are certainly frightening, but without being tied to anything else anywhere in the story, they seem to serve no purpose other than to generate a bit of a scare.

III. Thematic Issues
This problem extends to some of the story’s over-arching themes. What is the Southern Reach Trilogy really about? Is it just a scary story, or was Vandemeer trying to comment on something?

One easy interpretation of the book is that it’s simply a story about human beings’ deleterious impact on the natural environment. Interspersed throughout the three novels are comments about environmental pollution. Meanwhile, Area X, as frightening as it might be, is a picturesque and virtually untouched natural landscape. Some of the horrors of Area X involve the conversion of people and man-made things into natural objects. There are dolphins with human eyes, birds with apparently human motives, and so on. In one reading of the story, Area X represents the inevitable havoc we wreak on ourselves by poisoning our environment.

The reason I’m skeptical of this interpretation, however, is that the story is jam-packed with thematic elements that are so specific as to be anything other than coincidence. For example, all of the main characters in the story are grappling with the concept of dynasty. The Lighthouse Keeper is the son of a preacher who turned his back on life as a preacher himself. Control is a third-generation government agent whose history with the Agency is lackluster compared to his mother’s and his grandfather’s. The Director is a woman hoping to escape from the legacy of her criminal parents by latching onto the humble, hard-working solitude of the Lighthouse Keeper’s legacy. Ghost Bird is a woman seeking to escape the legacy implied by her own identity.

The fact that all of these characters share a common relationship to lives expected of them, and their shared desire to seek their own unique kinds of solitude as they struggle to find a legacy meaningful enough to them, on their own terms is something that Vandemeer wrote into his story on purpose. And yet, bafflingly, these themes are never resolved. They’re not resolved on a personal level for any of the characters expressing them, and they’re not resolved in an over-arching way during the course of the story. Like the orphaned characters I mentioned before, Vandemeer spills lots of ink setting up these common themes for the reader to ponder, and yet when it comes time to resolve the issue, he simply… doesn’t.

One possible reason for this is that Vandemeer plans to write more books about Area X. But if not, what was the point? The Southern Reach Trilogy could have been equally frightening, and exciting, and thought-provoking without introducing sets of characters and themes that ultimately end up being pointless diversions. Vandemeer wanted them in there, but why?

As I mentioned above, another reason for this might simply be that none of it survived the editing process. The resolutions were all there, thematic and otherwise, but the resulting books would have been too long and plodding and so they had to be cut to make the story more palatable for a broad audience.

IV. Conclusion
Vandemeer is a wonderful writer. I enjoyed the fact that, when it came time to change the story’s perspective to another character, the voice of the writing changed right along with it. His descriptions are sometimes elaborate and grand. We come to learn about Area X and this set of characters and by the end of the story, we understand both as well as can be expected from such a mysterious tale. His narrative is always engaging, and the action is fantastic.

And, admittedly, the only reason I could criticize the books as fully as I have above is because they were so engaging that I spent hours thinking about them even when I wasn’t reading them. For a story that makes you think, you can’t do much better than the Southern Reach Trilogy.

Still, with no plot resolutions and no thematic lessons learned, the books ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, as though the story could have been so much more than what it was.