Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Harper Collins (US: Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
As I suspect the following may be unintentionally spoilery, if you are merely here trying to figure out if I am going to offer a recommendation for Acceptance, I am. Strongly. Indeed, the entire trilogy is absolutely worth purchasing, and has been doing some absolutely fascinating things as it’s progressed.
You can find discussions of what the prior two books in The Southern Reach trilogy have been doing here (for Annihilation), and here (for Authority).
For those of you who are looking to continue wandering down the proverbial and decidedly cavernous rabbit hole I’ve been spelunking in reviewing these books, by all means continue reading:
For those who have been following along as I’ve talked here, and elsewhere, about the first two books of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation and Authority), you’ll be aware of just how different each book is from the next. They certainly bear the signs of their connective tissue, but each is a different beast entire.
That being true because though each book examines the push/pull of connection and distance, identity as both a static and shifting function, and transformation and transmutation both in personal and much broader terms, as I stated in my review of Annihilation VanderMeer’s work focuses primarily on three things: perception, transmutation, and revelation. And specifically, though those elements have been present in varying combinations and interactions across the trilogy, it is fair to say that in each step of the trilogy one of those elements has been more dominant than the others, this division of metaphorical labour shifting with each book in the series.
Annihilation’s primary overtone was that of transformation. It was a fast, spare, heady meditation on disassociative identity and how change is, like its affect, a fluid function. That book gave us the first threads of the tapestry that VanderMeer’s trilogy has grown into, set up an initial range of characters for us to work with, and gave us the bare bones of the worldbuilding, despite its extraordinarily rich layering (because the world of the trilogy itself is simply so massive in scope, despite the relatively small stage on which many of its component sequences play out).
Now, when Authority landed, it slowed down the pace of the narrative and forced us to do so as well, to pace ourselves along with the complicated, vast office politics at work in that narrative structure in what was in many ways more of a spy vs. spy thriller replete with espionage and counterespionage, albeit largely in a corporate and laboratory setting. And the book did something else very specific, something most trilogies don’t do: It pulled back and opened up the view of the world we thought we had seen, not redirecting the narrative of the first book, but casting it in new light and changing our perception thereof. Giving us a book focused entirely on how revelation is at once an act of understanding and of obfuscation – of how understanding does not always lead to clarity, nor to perception, for the tools with which we would understand what is being revealed do not themselves always come with the act of revelation.
Given that, the entire effect of Authority was, again, a duality: the novel created a sense of being ripped out of place and presented us with a much wider canvas to observe and (potentially) understand, while managing to immerse us far more deeply in the intricate subtext and undercurrents of the narrative at work. And in my review of Authority I cited the book’s focus on two key elements: immersion, and terroir. Both of which, as foci (as well as functions of the three concepts with which VanderMeer’s work generally concerns itself, as I noted in that last review), serve similar, though distinct purposes: one to engage and subsume; one to ground and create further threads to set up the still wider pattern of the final component of the trilogy.
And it is that final stage of the trilogy, Acceptance, that shows us how little we truly knew of the trilogy at all.
The third book is focused, primarily, on perception. But it is a measured understanding of perception, and a presentation and employment thereof keen to address the idea that perception is absolutely an individual function. And even as that perception acts as a tool with which to decipher the revelations that have been presented throughout this series, and though Acceptance has the most to tell us directly about what is actually going on in the trilogy, the book as presented is not a set of blanket answers. And those looking for absolute revelation would do well to be forewarned that that was never the focus of this trilogy – something which was quite apparent from the first book, but it feels only fair to mention it all the same.
Acceptance is about how the characters present in current predicament (in narrative sections stemming from the events in Authority) and those present at the events leading up to and involved in the creation of Area X (Acceptance jumps around between viewpoints in non-linear fashion), as well as those involved in the fallout from and response thereto, interact with the events themselves, and conduct their lives in light of transformation.
The entire trilogy has, ultimately, though there is a rather specific narrative progression at work, been a look at how people respond and react in the face of change. How they fight, mediate, and acquiesce in the face of irrevocable transmutation, both literal and metaphoric. And in Acceptance, much moreso than the other books of the trilogy, VanderMeer has done that by, again, pulling up and out in order to give us a much wider, much more far-ranging sense of scope, and also by giving us multiple streams of perception, all of them operating at various levels and in very different understandings.
It is again, a recasting of the events of the prior two books. Each of which seemed to present a slate of answers or possibilities, but which were, ultimately, still engaged in fairly narrow focus. And even the third book is still a function of particular perception; of a focus relegated to the individuals and protagonists who we follow through different periods and who stand on different sides of the events unfolding.
But there is in Acceptance finally a sense of having the veil torn away entirely. Even though we are only given conjecture (and variable conjecture, as each character deals vastly differently with Area X’s affect and effect) as to the causation behind Area X, the fact of its being and expansion simply an irrevocable given, even as the characters, and we the readers, strive to understand the why of it. Even though the why really isn’t the point of the trilogy.
The act of reading it is, instead, much more about being immersed in sensoria; of being required to engage with the text (and decidedly with the subtext) on an almost instinctual level. Much as is demanded of the characters. For their attempts to understand Area X in human context has always been a fallacy. Area X is not relatable in human terms. There is a gap to be bridged, and the narrative would suggest that it is one meant to be bridged, but not in terms we are, by nature, willing to engage.
And that has in many ways always been the strongest facet of The Southern Reach trilogy: that the books present us with a world so utterly alien that our understanding of it falters when run through human terms and definitions.
The characters and protagonists have been, in all but literal sense, our guides through the untranslatably alien nature of that world. And here again in Acceptance characters from prior books are there for us to engage through and relate to: Ghost Bird, Control, Grace, and others in smaller turn. (Also the Biologist, though I will not spoil the exquisite beauty of one of my favourite passages in the book by discussing that directly here.) But there are other voices given room to work in Acceptance as well: Gloria, Director of the Southern Reach and ill-fated psychologist of the 12th expedition, and Saul, the lighthouse keeper whose role is so much more central than we had previously realized. It is those two characters, specifically, far above and beyond Ghost Bird, Control, and Grace, who form the emotional as well as the logistical grounding of the book. Their relationships and transformations (across multiple strata of the trilogy’s fairly complex layering, and in very personal context as well) render them exquisitely human, even as they stop being so and become things entirely other – that understanding ranging from literal othering to something far more figurative.
Their characterizations are so deeply appealing, and so well-cast that they in some ways come to overshadow Ghost Bird and Control, who were in their own rights extremely strong characters, with a great deal of presence on the page. And that, too, is a strength of the books: we experience the world in, around, and in conflict with Area X through a variety of perspectives grounded in fully fleshed out characters, all of them with their own flaws, and needs, and wants. And those do not have to be the same characters from book to book. As our perceptions of the narrative change, so too do the protagonists we are given to follow.
It is the rare trilogy where I actively give a shit about the entirety of the cast of protagonists. And here I do find myself investing time, thought, and study into the craftsmanship of each of those individuals, and all the myriad components that form them. And through those characters am invested in the discoveries and patient peeling back of layers relating to Area X itself.
That because the novels are, like Area X itself, a form of ecosystem. With Acceptance their heart – a masterful stroke since Acceptance is the macro view of that trilogy, and I suspect most writers would have tunnelled in and down with a concept like this, rather than gyring out as The Southern Reach books have done – the entire trilogy becomes about the concept that fuels that final book: perception. It becomes a discursus on how being able to perceive, and not being able to perceive, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, changes the world in turn, and people as individuals more particularly.
And a part of that conversation, too, is a byproduct of the position given to Area X in Acceptance’s structure, in that Area X is allowed directly to be a much more natural function of the narrative here, even while it is given full character and understanding (again, a term applied in multiple contexts) in light of the narrative’s throughline. Though that, again, is a matter of perception, potential anthropomorphization of something more abstract and conceptual (or, at least, more a function of something not human, if not truly conceptually based), and the overlaying of terrestrial understanding on something which is only partially to be understood.
It is specifically because of that willingness to step back from explaining everything to us in broad or refined detail that Acceptance is such a powerful conclusion to the trilogy. At its close, the trilogy leaves us with the understanding that everything is rooted in very personal terms, no matter how human or not those may remain to be. It is the maintenance of that small and personal scope in the face of world-shaping change that will stand this trilogy in excellent stead in years to come.
At this point it’s too early to tell the book’s full impact on the literary and thematic landscape into which it has been thrust, but The Southern Reach trilogy as a whole feels like a touchstone work; the kind of thing to which others (writers, and readers) will turn and return to, mine and build on. A thing which takes on a life of its own and informs, if not becomes directly part of, a larger canon.
And in that context, as well as all the others I have covered in these three reviews of its component parts, as a whole The Southern Reach trilogy really is quite an extraordinary achievement.