Science, Sci-Fi, and The Southern Reach Trilogy: Genre-Bending #1

Art by Eric Nyquist
Art by Eric Nyquist

Recently I’ve become interested in the way books and other forms of media transcend genre labels (unfortunately, this is not the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said). You know, like when you go to the library and there’s that romance novel part of the fiction section that’s full of practically tattered paperbacks, yet you never seem to see anyone in there actually perusing the titles? It’s one of life’s most mysterious bibliothecarial questions (that, still, is probably not the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said).

Anyway, it wasn’t something that I just decided I was interested in. It happened when I realized that a lot of the books I read and the shows I watch, etc., refused to be comfortably tucked in to their designated genre boxes. To me, genre labels work in the same way (though obviously to a lesser degree) that race and gender labels function in modern society: limited in real information, meant mostly for convenience, and serve to attract stereotypes and prejudices that are difficult to shed. A good book is always more than its genre.

This brings me to the series The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer comprised of the novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. Just like Stephen Colbert “doesn’t see color” so I like to think that I don’t see genre (this is not true, but we all have to aspire to something). Neither does this series. Despite the sci-fi sticker stuck on the bottom of each spine, it is one of the most adaptable series I have ever read: at once science fiction, adventure, character-driven, and horror, topped of with a sensation I can only unhelpfully describe as surreal realism that ties the books together.

The novels focus on the enigmatic Area X—which I’m fairly certain is somewhere coastal in northern Florida—and the nature of its mystery as seen through the people who become its explorers and its victims. Area X is not just some stretch of wilderness where you might presumably find Dr. Livingston or Kurtz, though it does certainly have an incredibly Conrad-y Heart of Darkness quality to it, it is otherworldly in a way that even the novel’s characters fail to comprehend fully.

Over the course of the novels (the first one my favorite—I would not recommend reading it alone at night) we learn first about the experience of Area X from the first-person POV of “the biologist” during an exhibition into its confines, then about the government agency, The Southern Reach (¡title drop!), outside of Area X that monitors its activity, and finally (finally) about what the hell is actually going on.

What struck me about this series is not that it was such a pastiche of various genres, sci-fi only because of some reality-bending nature of some of its plot points, but that from the beginning, the series’ connection to and respect for science and scientific method was better than any kind of space western/opera I’ve ever seen. We are led into the series by a biologist–a skeptical biologist– who embodies her profession. Person and career become synonymous. Science becomes less an extension of human intelligence and understanding, and more of a constant within the human condition. Curiosity and the desire to know and to provide explanation drive both the characters and we as readers over the course of the series. Eventually, it is this driving force of curiosity, the scientific method of collecting evidence, of analysis, of believing that there is a rational explanation, that is the force that accommodates the acceptance of something beyond explanation. It creates science fiction through the convictions of science reality. I got to the point that, like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

Vandermeer’s style creates a lush textual ecosystem that parallels the ecosystem of Area X—something extraordinarily lush, and, like Area X, raises more questions than it answers. The series had high and low points: the first book set a pretty high standard, which made the second book drag in comparison. The third book was better, more complex, but didn’t deliver the way I thought it would. Kind of like the Lost series finale. I still had so many questions.

But that’s not how science works, is it? The best science answers questions but raises more, knows that there are some answers that aren’t going to be readily forthcoming. After I thought about the ending that way, I was less bitter. In fact, I was almost pleased.

If this was science fiction, it certainly wasn’t acting like it.


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