And so here we are, the climax of the Southern Reach trilogy. Acceptance plunges characters we’ve met from both of the previous books, Annihilation and Authority, back into Area X – Area X, you’ll remember, being the mysterious, possibly ecological, disaster zone, that has to be penetrated via a border that has a tendency to work on the people who pass through it. Anyone who has read VanderMeer before will know that just about the only thing you can expect will be that all bets are off. No-one is safe. Nothing is straightforward. Anything can happen.
Unlike both Annihilation and Authority, which enjoyed a single narrative voice, Acceptance is diffuse: we hear from Control (the narrator of Authority), Ghost Bird (a presence in Authority, an echo from Annihilation), the Director (a presence in both previous books but never a narrator before), the Biologist (the narrator of Annihilation) and the lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans (who we’ve seen a photograph of before and who we’ve met – ahem – an incarnation of in the previous books). And it’s not just narrative voice either: chronologically, Acceptance‘s story comes at you from a non-linear vantage: we hear from Saul pre-Area X, as he goes about his job on the lighthouse and contends with representatives from a mysterious agency taking readings and working on an island nearby; we hear from the Director as she goes about her job in the days before Control assumed (his admittedly limited) control of the Southern Reach; and we hear from Control and Ghost Bird as they themselves travel to the island (their narrative being the one that most directly advances the narrative of the two previous books, appropriating the style of quest fictions).
We’ve kind of known from the beginning of the trilogy that there would never be a point where VanderMeer drew back the old Wizard of Oz curtain and said, ta-dah, this is what Area X is – and provided you enter into things knowing that, Acceptance may surprise you by the fact that we do learn stuff. We get theories at any rate. Suspicions. Based on the best information that is available to the characters. Again, as VanderMeer has said, no single character gets a full picture of everything – the reader has the best vantage to hazard guesses. Seasoned VanderMeer readers will also be pleased to know that there are, once again, things within this book (unpleasant things) that will stick in your mind, all tacky to the touch, long after you might want them gone. It is a more complex book, though – the equivalent of starting to watch the X Files at Season 8, as we’ve said elsewhere. The inter-office political shenanigans of Authority (best seen as VanderMeer’s take on a writer like Le Carre) continue here in the Director’s narrative, and unpicking how the handling of Area X reached the impasse it did make for some of the best scenes in the book. VanderMeer seems to want us to be less interested in questions and answers than the organism that drives such questions and answers:
‘What stood out from what I tossed on the compost heap seemed to come from a different sort of intelligence entirely. This mind or these minds asked questions and did not seem interested in hasty answers, did not care if one question birthed six more or if, in the end, none of those six questions led to anything concrete.’
So. It’s a harder book than its predecessors in a lot of ways and it certainly is served by re-reading the other two books prior to jumping in with both feet but it satisfyingly wraps things up, and in a vibrant and original way (eschewing the kinds of tricks and traps you’d expect from the concluding chapter of a trilogy). We here at Bookmunch towers will be surprised if we read anything more challenging and unexpected during the rest of 2014.
Any Cop?: If you’ve followed the trilogy this far, you wont want to miss this; if you’ve yet to dabble, you’re missing out in a big way.