Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

like nothing human but something free and floating

The US covers for the Southern Reach trilogy
The UK covers for the Southern Reach trilogy

In keeping with my attempts to write something, no matter how unacademic, about whatever I read:

Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach trilogy, which you probably know about by now if you follow books at all. It came out last year, so I’m late to the party. All three volumes were published within the year, which is a clever marketing gimmick. It really works; reading volumes one and two (Annihilation and Authority) back to back was incredibly satisfying, and even though I waited about a month to pick Acceptance up, it wasn’t due to lack of burning curiosity.

The premise of the Southern Reach trilogy is that a section of coastline and interior in the southern United States (from textual clues, probably Florida) has become suddenly inaccessible: the mysterious Area X, which used to be inhabited but is now demarcated by an inexplicable, seemingly metaphysical boundary or border of white light. The Southern Reach is the government institution established to study Area X. In Annihiliation, we learn that our narrator (known only as “the biologist”) is a member of the twelfth expedition into Area X (the border is permeable, if not exactly reliable.) In Authority, we go back to the Southern Reach itself and wrestle with contradictory evidence from various expeditions alongside Control, the institution’s new director. The books are sort of eco-thrillers, sort of alien horror, but basically not very much like either.

Acceptance sees Control and the biologist (or a version of her) returning to Area X to try and figure out what went wrong on so many expeditions. There is no easy giving away of secrets here, but although many reviewers seem to find that frustrating, I rather liked it. If you want an answer, VanderMeer provides enough information for you to construct one with a bit of effort; what he won’t do is provide authorial confirmation that your answer is right. (I think mine is, for what it’s worth.) The strength of his writing is in the way that he sketches relationships between reticent, antisocial people with just a few short lines of dialogue. No character is fully fleshed out, but we get them, nonetheless.

The title is an interesting clue about the nature of the book (and the nature of Area X), as well: what the mission is really about is acceptance of fate, of recognizing that if you stop fighting, you may not get what you thought you wanted, or return to the life you used to have, but may become or acquire something altogether more powerful and profound. It’s not as New Age-y as it sounds; there is a scene where a manifestation of the biologist (I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific than that) crashes down a hill and attacks a lighthouse where the other characters are staying, and it is as purely wild and hallucinogenic and transcendently holy as anything any medieval mystic or Biblical prophet ever saw or wrote.

There are shades of the biblical in Acceptance; one of the characters, whose viewpoint is communicated to us only from the past, used to be a preacher, and as he becomes increasingly affected by the encroachment of Area X, his journal fills up with Old Testament-style rhetoric. There is a hint of the apocalyptic, and more than a hint of the cosmic. But there’s no overarching dogma here–much like Catherine Chanter’s The Well, which I read last month–and the book is stronger for it. We’re not meant to read this as a cautionary tale about waging fewer wars and producing less pollution, although those issues are, of course, given a passing mention. Instead, we’re asked to do something much more troubling: at its core, this is a book about learning how to die.

Although Authority (book two of the trilogy) drags a bit, Acceptance is, if not quite a return to the form of Annihilation–that would be impossible and possibly undesirable–at the very least an excellent offering from Jeff VanderMeer. The man can write. I would highly recommend all three of these books; Acceptance is a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that delights in evasion.

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