“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been.”
I have finished the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. As I suspected, to really understand what is going on in Area X you have to read all three books. The first book, Annihilation, which won the 2014 Nebula Award, stood on its own. However, Southern Reach #2 and Southern Reach #3 are very much tied together, with Acceptance being a direct continuation of Authority. I reviewed Annihilation here and Authority here. I’ll review Acceptance in this post, and then sum up my thoughts on the entire trilogy. But first, the publisher’s summary of Acceptance.
It is winter in Area X. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown navigating new terrain and new challenges the threat to the outside world becomes only more daunting.
In the final installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound or terrifying.
This summary is a little misleading. There are no new major characters introduced in Acceptance. However, certain characters from the first two books are revisited in detail. This is necessary to allow the reader to really understand what happened, is happening, in Area X; and why it is so damn strange and deadly.
Acceptance begins a few days after Authority ends. It picks up with the same two characters with whom the previous book ended, namely Ghost Bird and John Rodriguez aka Control. This is a small spoiler, but they are back in Area X, and they are looking for answers. Their search for answers is a third of the book.
The author also introduces you to Sal Evans, the lighthouse keeper. You’ve heard about him in Annihilation and also in Authority, but only as someone from long ago directly connected to the lighthouse when Area X first came to be. He and the lighthouse seem to be one of the focal points of Area X, and it is important for everyone to know what happened there. That includes the reader. A third of this book is his story from his own flawed point of view.
You are also introduced to the previous director of the Southern Reach, Cynthia. You know her already, as well as anyone else in fact, but that’s her secret to tell you, not mine. She is as inextricably tied to Area X as Sal Evans. Her story is another full third of Acceptance, perhaps even more.
Through the eyes of these four characters you will learn many of the secrets only hinted at in Annihilation and Authority. And just like you, all these characters want answers. Answers are what Acceptance is all about. And like these characters, you’ll get few of them, but they will be important answers. Nevertheless, the answers you get you might not understand. I know I’m still sorting through some of them. And for every answer you get, you’ll have two more questions to ask. You won’t get answers to those questions. You’ll just have to accept the answers you do get. But that’s the way life is, isn’t it?
What isn’t necessarily how life works is that sometimes you’ll actually get more than one answer to a given question, and they could all be correct. Separate correct answers could happen for a variety of reasons. I think all the causes can be summed up by stating an answer evolves along with the object of the original question. To quote another book, “Life is change.”
In the end, Acceptance is not just a story about the present, but also about the past. Through the magnifying lens of the lives these characters live and have lived, Jeff VanderMeer paints a picture of a world devastated by abuse but still ripe with potential. I wondered last review if there was a meta comment being made by him in this trilogy, and I believe there is.
In our need to feel safe, we attempt to control those around us, to modify their behavior to be more compatible with our sense of security. The outcome is predictable: resentment, rebellion, refusal. Control eventually requires repression, which leads to authoritarianism. Eventually everyone who doesn’t comply is a suspected anarchist, and every thirteenth citizen is actively working for the Stasi.
What’s worse, how we treat each other directly translates to how we treat the world. Our tendency to try to control everything so we never feel threatened by anything is at odds with life’s basic precept of adapt or die. I don’t think it’s an accident Area X is described as a “pristine wilderness,” and the main character is simply called The Biologist. We never learn he name, but her nickname is Ghost Bird, and that’s a message too.
And when environments, interpersonal or biological, eventually deteriorate from the abuse heaped upon them, as they inevitably must, we reject the circumstances of the situation with which we are uncomfortable. But circumstance is reality, no matter we may wish otherwise. Sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and bad things happen. Sometimes decisions are made in good faith but are tragically wrongheaded; with unpleasant and possibly fatal repercussions to follow. We can’t change those bad outcomes, those past decisions. Yet we attempt to obscure their reality, to change others perceptions of them, in order to hide from a truth we find unpleasant. In so doing, we blind ourselves to answers that could save us. In the end we destroy ourselves.
Through all of this, there’s a choice to be made. The title of book three sums it up neatly. At some point, acceptance is the only real choice left to make. Failing to accept a reality, no matter how at odds it is with our wishes, will only be our undoing. Acceptance is the first step to correction, and that’s the only road to salvation.
It’s a powerful meta. One applicable the women and men of the Southern Reach. One germane to life in Area X. One relevant to life on planet Earth today, and for the next hundred years.