Saturday, September 13, 2014

Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, Ambiguity and Annoyance

Spoilers are in orange to make them difficult to read.    But if you are one of those who like to know NOTHING about a work, then stop here.

This is something of a review or a commentary on Jeff vanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, whose third and final book has just been published.

I will know the hand of the sinner that brings forth the strangling fruit of inconclusive fiction. The wretched of the light will stomp mightily on the sinful authors of ambiguous trilogies and send them screaming into the eternal hell of publishing corruption while the worms giggle and chew energetically on the flesh of the accursed author....

VanderMeer has done two things that I enjoy very much in a work of fiction.  First, he has written what is plausibly described as a mystery story, but cleverly obscures what the real mysteries are. Second he has written something that feels like it could be a fantasy novel, or a novel of the supernatural, that is actually science fiction.  As all devoted readers of science fiction know, SF has rules of its own which are different from the genre of fantasy.

I started reading the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) a year ago without realizing it had not all been published yet, something I swore to never do again after a bad experience in my youth involving Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. (1)   But having started reading this series and finding it compelling, I ordered books two and three from Kindle and binge read them when they were released.   I was right to suspect that this was going to be a messy ending.   What does messy mean?  It means that many of the mysteries of Area X and the three books of the Southern Reach Trilogy are not resolved by the end of the third book.  In fact, new mysteries are added by the third book extending the cause of anxiety-producing lack of closure.

The worms will dance in the brain of the sinners who fail to resolve important plot points and bring forth the seeds of the annoyed who will jump up and down and never forgive ... 

These are not the real covers, these are alternate covers I found on the Internet, somewhere.

VanderMeer is perfectly happy to spin a narrative all the way up to page 295 of a 300 page book, then throw out some perfectly plausible world-shattering solution that wipes away the mirage of normalcy and in itself poses another dozen or more questions and then stop. Oh, I guess we are done. Some things in life are ambiguous, I can hear him thinking, thats just the way life is. That may be true in life, but in fiction there is more control and we can point the finger of responsibility if we care to, something that is much harder to do in real life.  

None of this would matter except that VanderMeer is very talented and has done an excellent job of creating a fascinating mystery or ten and characters that I care about.   Pretty much all of them are 'fucked with' hard by Area X which may or may not realize or care what it is doing to them.   And the author rather heartlessly leaves truly sympathetic characters as well as sympathetic readers hanging.

The seeds of the annoyed will emit glowing clouds of vengeance that will plotz on the author and cause him/her/it to rue the day....

After a moment of vocal displeasure for the son-of-a-bitch, a series of possible solutions presented themselves to me. Perhaps by carefully rereading the book(s), one can discover clues that resolve seemingly unresolved issues.  Perhaps there is a subtext or structure to what is answered and what is not.  Perhaps some of the questions are more important than others and that this will become clear upon reflection.  

So in other words, on top of the mysteries left apparently unresolved is the new mystery of why he did this. What was he thinking? Is he a sadist?  Is there a sequel planned? Has he been transformed by Area X?  Is he working for them?

Those who have read the trilogy or do not mind spoilers may read a partial list in the notes (2).

But as time has passed (we are in the third or fourth day since the final book was published) and as I reread the first and second books, I realize that there are some answers in descriptions and events previously described but whose significance was not apparent at the time.  I find that I am somehow going ahead with my life in spite of the ambiguity, that I have "accepted" the fact that we are all completely victimized by forces beyond our control and understanding.   

You can read the first few pages at the link below, annotated by the author.

And here is an annotated excerpt of the second novel.

The unknown plant will bring forth the seeds of the dead who will stomp on the fingers of the readers who believed that there is meaning and rational causation in the universe that they can understand but that is not the case.



1. When I first read Nine Princes in Amber I am pretty sure it was just a single book.  Then presumably something happened, it got popular, whatever, and a series of sequels started getting published perhaps one per year for a decade.  I was screwed and never did read the final books.

2. The following is an abbreviated list of just some of the issues either left very ambiguous or completely unanswered.

None of the questions or issues are about the specific technologies or “how things work”, although there is a huge amount of mystery there. I am completely willing to accept that somehow they do work.  Some of the questions below may have answers in some form in the book, but its subtle. Other questions could be added to this list.  

Should you care to read the spoilers, remember that most browsers will increase type size with control-+.  Hit that a few times and the following will be readable.

What is Area X trying to accomplish with that part of the Forgotten Coast? In other words, why is the Forgotten Coast there, and whatever replaced it here? What is the purpose of the topological anomaly? What is the crawler doing, what is its purpose, what do the words mean, why are they being written? (There are some clues to this in the third book, not altogether satisfying, but some clues). What is the thing in the sky and why is it so terrifying? What is the significance of the island and the other lighthouse. Is the owl the missing husband? It would seem that Area X can communicate with us if we take the situation in the tunnel/tower and Ghost Bird as communication, which I think it is. So why has it not communicated before? Why only now, possibly also with the cell phone? What is it trying to say? Does the border still exist? Has the entire world been incorporated into Area X? Why did Lowry not transform or did he? What happened to the first expedition that is different from what happened later? Did the S&SB help initiate Area X by somehow stimulating what was trapped and inert in the lens? What is the plan that the director thinks she has with the biologist in the context of the twelfth expedition, and why would the biologist be significant in her plan? Why did the director not transform or did she? What happened when John Rodriquez went through the door? Is he dead? Does anyone really die in this world or are they all available to be cloned later with or without certain memories? What changed when he went through the door? Is Area X now broken? Is Saul/the Crawler dead? When Area X is wherever it is, what is in its place behind the border where the Forgotten Coast used to be? If the entire world is Area X when the border expanded does that mean that it has also been transported to another place, with a mirage to make it think it is still where it was? Why (as in what is the purpose) of transforming everyone and everything? Is it a way of learning about them or interrogating them? Why did the director refuse to help the biologist when she was dying outside the lighthouse? What is it that caused the director to throw herself off the lighthouse to begin with? How do the journals get to the lighthouse, as it seems unlikely that many of the members of the expedition would be able to to put their journals there (given they were dead, or transformed or insane or running for the border).

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