When you're dealing with a series as freaky wig-out as the Southern Reach, it's difficult to wrap things up satisfactorily. You could go the way of the X-Files, and just get stupider and stupider until you die, having destroyed the mystery with a drearily linear explanation that insults everyone's intelligence. Some just never wrap, eventually howling out into the the void with less and less coherence, until it's just eidolon arms writhing in a no space. I think both have their problems, but I do have a preference for the screaming void. I felt like Acceptance cut the difference, which works better than it should, compromises being what they are. That said, I think there could have been maybe 15 more pages of coda. Shrug emoticon.
Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach series, which heretofore has been tight little Gothic mindjobs. The first follows a biologist on an excursion into Area X, an uncanny bit of landscape on the "forgotten coast". (I'd put it mid-Atlantic: above DC, below Maine.) The second follows the newly appointed director of Southern Reach, the clandestine organization which monitors Area X. Both books are suffocatingly personal books, written in a tight third person, and both occur in short time frames: maybe a week, a month. Both are regretful, in a way, both their characters on the wrong side of meaningful lives. Both creeped me the fuck right out.
Acceptance instead has four or five point of view characters (all of whom we've met in the previous books). There's even a point of view character written in the second person, which seemed just bizarre and unneccesary. Honest to glob, I spent way more time than I should trying to work out why this one character was second person, and I have no answers, especially given who the character it is. I mean, I can see how she's a pivot in a way, a bridge, but I'm not sure this translates into you. Or me. Whichever, second person is a pain in the ass. If any of y'all do have an answer, drop me a line. The time frame also cuts between a then and a now, sometimes confusingly, which is either a bug or a feature, not sure.
So, I liked the answers I got, and I liked that I didn't get all the answers.VanderMeer's been building some metaphorical systems through the series, and in many places, he just laid the final card on the tower, and then gave it room. Honestly, that kind of restraint is commendable in an author, especially in science fiction which tends to the monologue at the end, letting you know how clever everything is. I have some reservations, but mostly they are personal weirdnesses, and not something the average reader is going to get fussed about. I bolted this trilogy down in a way I haven't in a long time, and that is really saying something. Good show.
Out of nowhere, Area X appeared. No one knows why or where from. In an effort to answer those questions, Southern Reach has sent out teams to research Area X. A different fate befalls each one, and now they’re up to group twelve, consisting of an all female team who have no idea what they’re getting into.
What do I even say about a book that might easily be in my top five for this year? I adored this. It’s everything I love about science fiction combined with everything I love about horror. It does everything right. It was a mysterious and thrilling page-turner. It was compact, concise, and affecting. And it even managed to do things with characters that I’ve never seen done before in this genre.
For starters, it’s an all-female cast. All of them have what is considered predominantly male professions. You will not find hysteria and tears here when things get tough. There’s an emphasis on science and logic. Even our main narrator has flaws that are typically considered for male characters only, in that she’s emotionally unavailable, socially awkward, and logical to the point of seeming downright cold. The previous expedition was an entirely male team, and when we hear more details about that, they come off as way more unorganized and broken down than the female team. I can’t even express how much I appreciated that VanderMeer did this. That he broke those gender boundaries and rejected the stereotypes. This book is so feminist that I’m surprised more people haven’t latched onto it as an example of how gender-blind science fiction should be.
The biologist (all the characters are known only by their professions) can be seen as an unlikeable character, and I understand that thwarted a lot of people in reading it. They hated her. I admit that I don’t see it. We’re reading her journal, and while she does give some insight into her reasons for being there and her life before Area X, she still struggles to be open. I think in her writing style, what she clearly values, and how the most romantic she can be is in writing scientifically, VanderMeer created a very unique person. And he wrote her incredibly well. She was the perfect character to face a situation like the one she’d presented with and be perfectly transparent and fascinated but also not overly Maudlin. But then I’ve never struggled with needing to love a character to find them interesting and wanting more of their story. In a way, I did find things to love with the biologist. Mainly that she was so different than most of what I read regarding female characters.
The story itself raises questions, answers some, and leaves others for sequels as this was the first book in a trilogy. It’s made me absolutely ravenous for the next two books but not pissed about cliffhangers, so I’d say in that regard he struck a good balance. Enough to keep you reading, but not enough to feel frustrating as this book does have a loose conclusion to it.
I definitely intend to keep reading as I’m fully invested already, just from this slim volume. I think for fans of cosmic horror and any kind of weird fiction, this is for you. Do try to keep an open mind, as this doesn’t have the trope-y, sci-fi protagonists we’re all used to.