Closing out an acclaimed trilogy is always a difficult task: tying up plot threads, character arcs and all the lingering questions, but with Acceptance, Jeff Vandermeer has closed out his Southern Reach Trilogy in grand style.
This novel brings to an end the story begun in Annihilation and Authority, and like its predecessors, it's difficult to put down as the Southern Reach infiltrates your mind and lingers in your thoughts long after the book has been placed back on the shelf.
Some spoilers for the Southern Reach trilogy ahead...
I was an enormous fan of Annihilation, where we're first introduced to Area X through the eyes of a four-woman team of explorers. A vast section of southern coastline has been separated from the rest of the world by a mysterious barrier, while everything inside has reverted to a wild state. Vegetation grows rampant over abandoned settlements and is home to some exceptionally strange features. Animal life takes on some strange characteristics, and modern technology doesn't work well on the inside. The Biologist finds herself transformed on the inside after investigating a mysterious, underground tunnel, and that's just the start.
In Authority, the Southern Reach agency has been floundering for years as it attempts to investigate the phenomenon known as Area X, sending in expedition after expedition. Those team members who aren't killed return changed or diseased. The agency's new leader, Control, tries to make sense of the phenomenon which he's tasked with overseeing, while the mysterious region seems to be infiltrating his organization.
The title of Acceptance seems appropriate — there's a sense of acquiescence, just as Annihilation looked at what happened to the region when Area X appeared and how Authority looked at the inner-office politics of the Southern Reach agency. At the end of Authority, Area X expanded, taking over an unknown amount of space, prompting Control and the biologist's doppelgänger Ghost Bird to jump into the region to find answers.
Vandermeer juggles the trilogy's cast of characters throughout Acceptance, jumping back and forth through time, to the region before Area X appeared, and to various times throughout the trilogy. We meet Saul, the mysterious lighthouse keeper, as he confronts members of the Séance & Science Brigade, investigating strange happenings in the islands around the Lighthouse. We meet the Director, following her fall from the lighthouse and the biologist, who remained behind and who searches for her husband, still lost in the region.
Acceptance brings out some answers that have swirled around the first two entries in the trilogy. In particular, Saul's story brings to light the events which preceded the initial incident. Some fundamental questions are answered (Time dilation, check. Alien influences, check), which imparts a certain amount of satisfaction; even as other questions go unanswered (Area X's purpose, left up to a certain amount of interpretation).
The alien nature of Area X doesn't diminish any of the sheer weirdness and wonder that Vandermeer's set up, and indeed, he leaves some of this up to the interpretation of the reader. Closing the book, I was immediately reminded of two major SF classics: Solaris, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and Roadside Picnic by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Both novels examine the ramifications of contact with an entity far beyond our comprehension, and I think the same applies here. Area X is simply an impossible force to comprehend for the characters, and it simply exists. I'm not entirely sure that it even counts as an antagonist for the characters: their struggles are with themselves and their own baggage and issues that they live with.
In many ways, the trilogy isn't about this strange place with strange powers and strange creatures doing strange things to anyone who invades it. These trappings surround a powerful story that looks at humanity's relationship with the unknown and how much of the natural world we have trouble understanding. Throughout the trilogy, it's clear that the Southern Reach agency is unable to comprehend what they have before them, even as the event transforms the people they send out into the field. I'm reminded of how observing something can change what's under observation, but here, the more they observe, the more they change.
The Southern Reach trilogy helps to reaffirm that Weird fiction isn't an artifact of the early pulp days of the genre, and it stands out as a triumphant feat of storytelling and one of the best stories to emerge out of the New Weird movement. It's also a stunningly beautiful end to a stunning trilogy.
Vandermeer's language is phenomenal throughout, and he uses Acceptance to gently bring together all of his characters into an interconnected story that spans generations. He does all this while examining a broad story that touches on the delicate nature of our biosphere, the systems we set up around ourselves, and just how little we understand about the world around us. Acceptance exceeded my wildest expectations as I read the trilogy. The story of Area X infected my brain with all of its possibilities and vivid world, which means that I'll be back to revisit the trilogy again before too long.