WIRED Book Club: The Southern Reach Trilogy Will Scare the Life Out of You
Our hands tremble as we type this… OK, not really, but the first installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, is not for the horror-averse. Some of us got pretty weird nightmares after finishing—of huge monsters endlessly scrawling our fate on the walls of caves. But finish we did, since we’re on a mission to read the whole trilogy this month. Join us below for our first discussion, then come back next week for a follow-up on book 2, Authority.
So, how do we feel?
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: Thoroughly creeped! It’s kind of a tone study in dread, right? The swaying reeds. That horrible moaning at dusk. All in a spare, ominous style. The horror lives in the background. Until the end, of course, when the biologist is basically mind-raped by an inter-dimensional rainbow beast in the depths of hell. I wanted to scream.
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: I was hypnotized from the first few pages. Maybe the Crawler managed to implant spores in my brain, too.
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: I love it! And cannot wait to read the next two books, but as we had agreed, I will not jump ahead because doing so can lead to seemingly prescient insights in the current discussion. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. My favorite of the books we have read so far, for all the very reasons that creeped out Jason.
Sarah Fallon, Senior Editor: I had some very weird dreams last night (I had just finished the inter-dimensional mind-probe scene thing). Snakes fighting, my hands full of worms and caterpillars that I had to hold very gently. It was peculiar.
Do we like our narrator?
Kehe:: Not at first. I didn’t believe her either as a biologist or even, really, as a woman. Could have been anyone: a man, a student, a farmer. But at some point—I think it was the flashback to the teeming pond in her childhood backyard—she fell into place, as the introverted, obsessive, self-sabotaging person she claims to me. By the end I came to find her a singular voice, and an admirable narrator.
Pandell: I liked her cold, calculating personality well before those details came into play, but I agree that those sections changed her from a distant, logic-obsessed narrator into someone readers can make sense of. But, though I enjoyed experiencing the story through her eyes, I’d probably go the way of the surveyor after spending too much time with her in person. I imagine her as someone that doesn’t look at you during conversation, but seems to look through you. Like, come on, at least humanize yourself with a name before you shoot me!
Dayrit: I liked her from the get-go, from her solipsistic attitude to her immediate suspicion of everyone and everything to her isolationist approach in her profession. I’ll admit it: I could totally relate! In a previous discussion over lunch, a few coworkers felt the biologist lacked interiority, failed to show any emotional life, but I would argue there were a few reasons for that. She is on a scientific reconnaissance mission. Emotion has little reason to appear in her journal; that’s the psychologist’s job. Also, the biologist was raised by distant, alcoholic parents who poured orange juice in her cereal. If that doesn’t outright lead to alexithymia, someone who grew up in that environment would, at the very least, be emotionally guarded. In the end, what the narrator lacked in emotion, the writing more than made up for in texture. What a fever dream of description!
Fallon: I don’t find her particularly compelling for all the reasons people mention above. But I find her believable, and I like the psychological progression she makes to understand the nature (ha!) of love a bit more deeply.
What genre is this?
Pandell: It’s planted firmly in the sci-fi category, but it read like a ghost story.
Dayrit: Yup, sci-fi horror, for sure. Totally my thing.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: But it’s still so different from sci-fi as I’m used to it! Its characters are all analytical types, but there still isn’t any underlying logic to this weird world … yet. That really threw me off: Usually I love trying to piece together a world’s logic as the story and characters reveal it to you. But here the characters are just as in the dark as you are. This is a totally different process of discovery for me, it matches mysteries way better. But then you throw in the classic sci-fi trilogy element, plus the journal framing, and that throws off the typical mystery-reading experience too. Basically, I’m finding those slight switches in form really pleasantly jarring.
Kehe: I’m with Katie. Normally I think about a book’s genre while I read. Or rather, it sits in the back of my mind as a kind of heuristic, helping me better accept or reject certain conventions, make sense of the world, assimilate information. But here, I read as though this were some unique, alien text. (If I had to categorize, though, SF/H, sure.)
Dayrit: I feel better that Katie, our science editor, went looking for logic and didn’t find any. I was worried I missed something regarding the reproductive processes of the organisms in Area X.
Is Area X … alive?
Pandell: Some aspects of Area X, if not all of it, seem to have derived from a fungus or spore. As a side note: I am so excited by this. Fungus is such great sci-fi fodder because, in real life, it is totally nuts! There’s mind-controlling fungus, poisonous fungus, hallucinogenic fungus, and even fungus that can spread through ashes if it burns. Joe Hill also explored the possibilities of a disease-spread spore in The Fireman—well worth the read if you’re a fellow fan of fungi-fic.
Fallon: I’ll confess that I find the distanced style … distancing. It didn’t yank me along like some of the other books. I’ve never been one for quieter sort of literature. All the landscape descriptions in Thomas Hardy novels. Blech. But what I did like was the fact that the landscape is very much a character here, in both a classical way but also in a “infect you in the lungs” kind of way. And, of course, there are characters—actual humans—who are now, in fact, part of the landscape. (Like the creepy dolphin and the mask in the water and the overgrown dead people.) And THEN of course, the landscape has somehow colonized her, which makes her feel wonderful and strong and alive and also so much in touch with the natural world that she can hear her assailant in the grass and respond quickly.
Dayrit: Yes, Sarah, landscape as character, especially since organisms within Area X seem to subsume each other and morph into hybrids like the human-eyed dolphin, the horseshoe-crab face, and the tortured creature who moans at dusk. Poor thing! As the biologist says, “Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words which powers the engine of transformation.” Pretty ingenious that the infectious spores are part of the lettering on the walls of the tower, for what else would draw the potential victim in for closer inspection?
Are we looking forward to the next two books?
Pandell: Yes! I devoured this book like Area X devours the silly humans that dare stray inside its border. I would be happy reading this as a mysterious standalone, but I’m eager to learn more about Area X.
Palmer: Yup. Can’t wait for more of that internal logic to reveal itself, probably in some moments of awesomely vivid dread.
Dayrit: Completely looking forward to it! I saw a man on BART reading Authority, the second in the trilogy. Like a crazy person, I got up from my seat to go sit next to him. I asked him what he thought, said that I had read the first book and was looking forward to the next. He said he was enjoying it. He said it was different than the first, but hard to describe without giving anything in away. I respected him for being spoiler-conscious. Relatedly, it was nice to see someone reading an actual book on public transportation instead of staring at their phone.