book review: acceptance

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 341 pp.
Published September 2, 2014

It is winter in Area X, the mysterious wilderness that has defied explanation for thirty years, rebuffing expedition after expedition, refusing to reveal its secrets. As Area X expands, the agency tasked with investigating and overseeing it--the Southern Reach--has collapsed on itself in confusion. Now one last, desperate team crosses the border, determined to reach a remote island that may hold the answers they've been seeking. If they fail, the outer world is in peril.

Meanwhile, Acceptance tunnels ever deeper into the circumstances surrounding the creation of Area X--what initiated this unnatural upheaval? Among the many who have tried, who has gotten close to understanding Area X--and who may have been corrupted by it?

In this last installment of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may be solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound--or terrifying.

Acceptance functions as both a prequel and a sequel to the previous two Southern Reach novels. Shifting between four viewpoints, it provides an image of the Forgotten Coast before Area X subsumed it and continues the saga of Control and Ghost Bird after their leap into the unknown at the end of Authority. Joining their perspectives are those of the lighthouse keeper—before all of the changes wrought by the forces of Area X—and the former director of the Southern Reach, in the months before she entered the anomaly leading the twelfth expedition as its psychologist. While an expanded view sidesteps the problem of exposition in the present, it also serves to dilute some of the tension built throughout the series.

Most disappointing were the psychologist's chapters. The mystery of her obsession and how much knowledge she carried with herself into Area X formed a central question in Authority. Strangely, the former director's unspooling felt less compelling in reality than through the lens of Control's imagination. In a series brimming with mysteries, plenty still left unanswered by the last page, this particular ambiguity would have been better left alone.

By contrast, the viewpoint of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper, hearkens back to all of the dark wonder and unmoored feeling of the biologist's expedition. Two members of the Séance & Science Brigade, a poorly defined organization with both scientific and supernatural aims, skulk around the property blessed with a government permit. Their presence slowly turns from a nuisance to an omen. Mysterious fires burn on the small island off the coast and more than once the pair seems to tamper with the antique lens that lights the coast for passing ships. This behavior begs the question: did our government know about Area X, before it became Area X? A murk of secrets and subterfuge similar to the previous two novels lingers most strongly here, put aside for other, less satisfying ventures in the other chapters.

Ghost Bird and Control drive the narrative forward in 'present day'—the timeline left hanging at the end of Authority. Untethered from the Reach, his mother, and Central, Control loses much of what made him so compelling in the second book. His paranoia feels less focused; compared to the biologist who emerged from the anomaly and those they meet during their journey, he is woefully ill-equipped.

Ghost Bird fares better. Her experiences both outside Area X and during her return within its borders draws a fine point on the questions of self, free will, and the nature of existence itself that VanderMeer touches on throughout the series. While her journey across the anomaly plays more like a greatest hits compilation of the events already experienced in Annihilation, her inner monologue during those experiences draws an often subtle contrast with how the biologist processed the twelfth expedition.

VanderMeer's stylistic approach captivates as thoroughly as it did in the opening novel, elevating material that is, at times, disappointingly mediocre to something more fitting in an otherwise excellent series. It is unfortunate that the mysteries he deemed to solve were, for me as a reader, those that could have stood to remain unanswered. Some of the lingering gaps and grey areas in Area X's mythology make one question whether the omissions are intentional or a shortfall of world-building as the series drew to a close. While the Southern Reach trilogy may end with a proverbial whimper, VanderMeer's language and the sheer imaginative audacity of the first two books still make this an impressive, must-read series for any science fiction enthusiast.


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