Review: Acceptance (Book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance CoverAcceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
ISBN: 9781443428439
Harper Collins (US: Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
September 2014

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.

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And Then September Showed Up When We Weren’t Looking

Woke up to September. Oh man, so much to get done. But going to note a couple of things here.

First, Leah Bobet and I are conducting a grant writing workshop, “Writing Effective Arts Grants,” on September 7th, from 1 to 3 pm at Bakka Phoenix Books. Tickets are $10, seating is limited, and all attendees will receive a 10% discount coupon for purchases made same day at Bakka.

Leah and I have a fair bit of experience on this point between us, so it’s definitely worth your while to come out to this if you can. (And you can find slightly more information on the event page I’ve linked to.)

The other thing I need to note is that, yes, This Patchwork Flesh is now closed to submissions. And I still have a lot of those to read through. Will be doing some of that today. (Work is what long weekends are for, right?) And sending out rejections and acceptances over the course of the month. Some very good stuff in that pile, and I’ve yet to see the whole of it, so looking forward to digging in.

Thanks immensely to all those of you who sent your stories. I saw a few people rushing to get stuff in just under the wire, and no worries all round. I’m considering everything that came in to the submissions address :)

Now I really need to get back to finishing that long delayed review of Jeff VanderMeer’s Acceptance, so I can hopefully post that sometime today.

And then there’s only the crushing pile of things waiting in queue to get done after that. So, you know, nothing to worry about, right? :D

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Updates, Sales, a This Patchwork Flesh Reminder, and Some Talk About The Humanity of Monsters

This month has been pretty much ridiculous in terms of deadlines, scheduling, and being head down in an awful lot of projects.

Consequently, I’ve had no real chance to talk about much on the blog. I still need to post some promised material following the Clarion West fundraiser, along with getting some other things done around here.

But as I’ve got final edit confirmation on my poem, “No Fixed Points in Space,” from the market that it sold to, I now feel comfortable announcing that that piece will appear in issue 11 of Stone Telling. Which makes me very happy as I’m inordinately fond of the market, and they run work from poets whose work I absolutely adore, so I’m looking forward to seeing who I get to share space with there.

But one of the main reasons I sat down to write this entry actually has to do with This Patchwork Flesh. Given everything else I’ve been trying to get done this month, I haven’t had a chance to talk publicly about the anthology, and offer people feedback and advice on what’s going on there. Part of that is just due to the anthology’s open call falling during, at least in part, the same period as my attending Clarion West. That was always going to affect my ability to devote as much time as I wanted to gearing up for the anthology, I just hadn’t realized quite how much that would be the case.

Anyway, we’re about five days away from the submissions window on that closing. Seen a fair amount of variety in terms of what’s coming in, and a spread of nationalities in the submissions queue. But, as ever, I could do with more Canadian submissions. No real requirements as to length right now; we’ll see how everything fits together as it goes. Still working my way through what’s in the pile, and I want to thank everyone who has submitted thus far. My responses for this one have been going out very slowly, and it’s a good thing I’m going to be able to take September to do part of that as there’s no way I’d manage that by the end of August.

The timing on that is further complicated by the fact that in addition to everything else I’m doing I’m currently working on some final round confirmations of involvement and a lot of contract back and forth for the reprint anthology I’ve been putting together in bits and pieces over the last couple of years.

Some of you have heard me talk about that project, in person mostly, and a little bit online. But given that most of the preparatory work on that is nearing completion, I feel I can start talking about it slightly more.

The short version is this: The Humanity of Monsters is an all reprint anthology that will be released through ChiZine Publications in November 2015. The lineup is absolutely stellar, international, includes a fair number of PoC authors, a hell of a lot of women, and roams all over the place in terms of genre. (Will put up the full ToC once everything is in place.) The anthology is focused around humane monsters, monstrous humans, and the interstices where those states meet and blur, pulling from stories that refuse simple definition.

It’s going to be ever so much fun :)

And I will talk about it further once everything is more firmly nailed down.

In the meantime, I need to dive back into the things I momentarily set aside to write this post. And I’ll catch up with everyone again when I’ve got a touch more time.

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Clarion West Fundraiser Follow-Ups

End stage (post-Clarion West) updates re the fundraising campaign. Just posting directly from the campaign update here:

For those still following along with the campaign page, as well as any other channels I’m talking about this on:

I’m now back from Clarion West (fucking amazing experience, by the way, and you are all more ridiculously awesome than I can properly state for having helped me get there), and I’m working on making sure I’ve got proper records about who I need to contact, and what’s been promised all round.

That’s going well so far, just slowly, as I settle back in to work and other obligations now that I’ve returned to Toronto.

Should be getting around to contacting everyone in the next few days.

In the meantime, holy fuck, man. Clarion West. There will be a ton of talking to come about that, much of it done via blogs, but that was so absolutely worth it. So a HUGE round of thanks to everyone who helped with this campaign, in whatever respect (spreading the word, direct donations, or just general support). I’m wary of the term “life-changing” in regard to things like this. But, uh, yeah, it was:

A change in headspace, a chance to sort a lot of personal shit out and make some long overdue decisions, as well as encountering some decidedly unexpected developments while there. So, you know, it’s a hell of a thing.

And I will end, for now, on this note: If you’re on the fence about applying for Clarion/Clarion West, apply. The experience is not for everyone, and it’s totally dependent on a lot of factors cohesing in just the right fashion (class, instructors, being at the right place/time in your life to get the most out of it), but it’s an extraordinarily strange and wonderful thing when it comes off right. And if you have the opportunity to experience it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Later, all :)

And with that, I’m back out. More updates as they occur :)

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Another Vaguely Stub-Like Update (Covering a Bunch of Things)

Am back from Clarion West. Many posts forthcoming on said topic, including promised excerpts. Also, still in the process of deciding what and how I talk about re that experience. It was glorious, brutal, and otherwise bears talking about.

But, for the time being, I’m trying to organize everything I owe people now I’m back, and catch up on e-mails. Blogging will be at a minimum, while I deal with what’s looking to be a very busy month.

In the meantime, everyone should absolutely keep sending in their stories for This Patchwork Flesh. (Deadline is August 31st.) I don’t have a post around the antho prepared right now, though I may get a chance to write one before the month is out. Usual advice re the book: write shorter, tighter, leaner.

Oh, also, I’m going to be jointly running (with Leah Bobet) a grant writing workshop out of Bakka Phoenix Books come Sunday, September 7th. The workshop will run from 1-3, and the details are forthcoming, as will be the link to the signup page (likely going to be through TicketLeap again, but Leah and I are working out the logistics for the moment). Hope to see a number of you there, since it promises to be immensely fun, and the workshop should give people enough time to prep their Canada Arts Council grant applications for October with everything they take away from the experience.

Also, in short story news, Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse is now out and available to purchase. Said anthology, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, contains my story “Jenny of the Long Gauge.” It’s quite an interesting book, with a fair amount of variety to it. And it contains the work of a number of friends, so it’s definitely worth looking into. And I’ve had word of another anthology I’ve got a story in moving toward production shortly, so I’ll talk about that once things are firmed up.

Otherwise, hope everyone is doing well. And, yes, I’m available for contacting. For whatever reason. Responses may not come at lightning speed, but I’m here and looking after things again. And if anyone wants to catch up on what the hell is going on with me now that I’m back, I’m being fairly active on Facebook right now. So that’s an option. Otherwise, sit tight, and I’ll see you all again shortly :)

[Edited to Add:] WordPress informs me that it’s three years ago now that I set up this blog. So, I guess I should go seeking birthday cake to celebrate on the blog’s behalf? (Clearly, this is exactly what that means.) Which is fine because I like cake. But then I also like pie. So many decisions….

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The Briefest of Brief Updates (Re CW and Anthologies)

So, re the (now successful) Clarion West fundraiser and the excerpts to be posted following meeting that goal, I may have misjudged how that would interact with the scheduling here at Clarion West.

I’m more or less swamped with things, so I think I’m going to end up pushing back posting the excerpts until I get home. (In the first couple of days of August. And I suspect that will fall right before I have to start in on the critiques rewards from the fundraisers – for which I will be getting in contact with everyone owed one; and again I’ll be doing so once I’m back from Clarion West.) Not exactly how I wanted to handle posting up the excerpts, but it’s looking more and more unavoidable at the moment.

Whereas having only having had a chance to glance at the submissions in the slush pile for This Patchwork Flesh thus far is exactly what I was expecting :)

Re that: Still too many non-Canadian subs on balance, so looking forward to seeing the Canadian sub numbers tick up down the road (they’re already doing so, just slowly). I’d also like to be doing detailed submissions updates for that book, or something close to what I was doing with the updates for Start a Revolution, but there just isn’t time enough for that yet. Should be able to start looking into things again and talking about them more ably in August. (So, basically, everything, ever, is happening in August….)

In the meantime, I will simply remind everyone that the final deadline for This Patchwork Flesh is August 31st.

I will also take a moment to note that I’m seeing a lot of US-based submissions, and that if you’re a non-Canadian submitting something for This Patchwork Flesh right now, you need to be writing tight and short to compete. This is generally true for an anthology call, but I’m looking at what I’ve got on hold right now, and how that fills out the book, and tighter, more compact pieces from non-Canadians are going to fare far better right now. I just don’t have the space to run more than a couple of stories from non-Canadian writers, given the content restrictions under which the book is being produced.

If anyone is stuck on what to do, I can’t offer you direct advice because I want to see as wide a range of things as possible, but I can point you in the direction of this post (http://michaelmatheson.wordpress.com/2014/05/18/this-patchwork-flesh-two-weeks-until-the-reading-period-opens/) wherein I discuss the thematic and tonal representations of horror that I’m more likely to be drawn to in the slush pile, largely based in personal preference. And I will stress, right behind that, that my own preferences are only a portion of what will make up the final shape of the anthology, and that excellence of writing, regardless of tone or nature, is always what carries a story farthest with me.

And … I have now taken far more time away from everything else I need to get done than intended :)

Also, if any of you saw the accidentally posted in-progress version of this post that went up a few minutes ago (Hello little accidentally struck “Publish” button, and how are you today?) you should feel totally free to ignore that half-written post in favour of this one :p

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Clarion West Fundraising Update – Goal Met!

Holy fuck! Clarion West fundraising goal met!

I cannot currently process this, and I have workshop things to do, so I will tackle this when coherent again. In the meantime, I owe a huge fucking thank you to everyone who helped with this, so consider this the preliminary “You are all ridiculously awesome” speech.

If delivered in a fragment.

Anyway, if anyone wants to look at the “Goal Met. I has incoherence. But this is awesome” post up on the actual fundraising campaign page, you can do that here.

So awesome :D

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