Review/Rant: The Southern Reach Trilogy

Warnings: contains spoilers for AnnihilationAuthorityAcceptanceThe Quantum ThiefThe ExpanseThe LaundryverseDark Matter, and SCP (as much as SCP could be said to have spoilers). Discussion of horror works. Otherwise contains your regularly scheduled science fiction rant.

I recently[1] blew through Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance series, also known as the Southern Reach Trilogy, which I’ll abbreviate to SRT.

First things first: overall, it was pretty good. I enjoyed the writing, the clever turns of phrase (“Sheepish smile, offered up to a raging wolf of a narcissist.”[2]). It’s reasonably good at keeping up the tension, even while sitting around in bland offices with the characters politicking at each other.

So the writing is alright, but the real draw was kind of the setting, kind of the story structure, kind of the subject matter. In a way, it’s right up my alley. It’s just a… weird alley.

The most obvious weird is used as a driving force in the world building, forcing us reconsider what exactly we’re reading.

Is this an environmental thriller? Kind of, but the environmental message is muted and bland, restricted to a repeated offhand remark “well, too bad the environment is fucked”. Is this an X-Files rip off? Kind of, but the paranormal is undeniable: you don’t want to believe it’s there, you want to believe there’s an explanation behind it all. Is this a romance? For the first book maybe, but with one of the pair entirely absent from the book[3]. The second book doesn’t help by introducing elements of the corporate thriller genre, and then axing any chance of finishing that transition by the end of the book.

Whatever it is, all throughout SRT is world building, but shot through with twists and turns. It reminds me of those creepy dolly zooms (examples) which undermine the sense of perception, but applied to narrative. For example, the biologist and story at large constantly give up information that forces us to reconsider everything that came before:

  • By the way, my husband was part of the previous expedition.
  • By the way, there were way more expeditions than 12.
  • By the way, the danger lights don’t actually do anything[4].
  • By the way, I (the biologist) am glowing.
  • By the way, the 12th expedition psychologist was the director of Southern Reach.
  • By the way, said director was in the lighthouse picture.
  • By the way, Central was involved in the Science and Seance Brigade.
  • Did I mention Control’s mom was in the thick of it?

It’s sort of like Jeff is giving us an unreliable narrator with training wheels: we’re not left at any point with contradictory information, yet there’s a strong sense that our only line into the story is controlled by a grinning spin doctor. It’s an artful set of lies by omission.

My suspicion is that I enjoyed this particular aspect of the SRT for the same reason I enjoyed The Quantum Thief trilogy. Hannu does a bit less hand holding[5], like starting the series with the infamous cold open “As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk. ‘Prisons are always the same, don’t you think?'”[6]. And as an example, the trilogy never explicitly lays out who the hell Fedorov is: in fact, I didn’t even expect him to be a real person, but his ideology (or the Sobornost’s understanding of his Great Common Task) was so constrained by the plot happening around it that I never had to leave the story and, say, search Wikipedia, which was excellent story crafting. Anathem is another book that does this sort of “fuck it we’ll do it live” sketching of a world to great effect[7].

But while The Quantum Thief is sprinting through cryptographic hierarchies and Sobornost copy clans, it’s still grounded in a human story. The master thief/warrior/detective tropes serve as a reassuring life vest while Hannu tries to drown us with future shock[8][9]. The SRT doesn’t need as much of a touch point, since we never leave Earth and bum around a mostly normal forest and a mostly normal office building[10], but the organizational breakdown in the expedition and Southern Reach agency are eminently relatable in the face of a much larger and stranger unfolding universe.

Let’s unpack that unfolding universe.

The world of SRT is weird: while The Quantum Thief is a fire hose, it only spews the literary equivalent of water, easily digestible and only murky in tremendous quantities. The SRT finishes with loose ends, the author at some point shrugging his shoulders and leaving a dripping plot point open for the spectacle of it, and that’s okay. It’s weird fiction.

Another parallel: Solaris describes a truly alien world sized organism. What is it thinking? How does it think? How do you communicate with it? The story ends with all questions about the planet Solaris unresolved, with the humans only finding out that broadcasting EEG waves into the planet does something[11]. No men in rubber suits here, just an ineffable consciousness. Even a hungry planet makes more sense to us: at least it has visible goals that we can model (even if they are horrifying[12]).

You end up with the same state in SRT: what is Area X doing? Why is it doing it? What the hell does the Markov chain sermon mean?[13]

I’m guessing this is why people don’t like it: there are barely any answers at the end. How did turning into an animal and leaping through a doorway help at all? Did Central ever get their shit together? What’s up with the burning portal world? If you were expecting a knowable “rockets and chemicals” world, it’d be disorienting.

In a way the story suffers a bit from a mystery box problem, where there are boxes that are never opened. However, in this case I think the unopened boxes are unimportant. Sure, the future of humanity is left uncertain, the mechanisms of Area X are still mysterious, but we know what happened to all the main characters, see how they played their parts and have some closure.

(I am miffed that Joss Whedon is poisoning the proverbial storytelling well. Yes, mystery boxing makes economic sense, but now I see the mystery box like I hear the Wilheim scream, and it’s not pretty.)

Okay, so we have a weird new world we explore, and weird fiction that is weird for the sake of being weird, but I’m neglecting the weird that gives people bad dreams.

On one level there’s simple horror based on things going bump in the night: think about the moaning psychologist in the reeds, the slug/crawler able to kill those that interrupt its raving sermon. But that doesn’t show up in spades: the description of the 1st expedition disintegration cuts off after a sneak peak, omitting most of the ugly details. Jeff had plenty of opportunity to get into shock horror, and didn’t.

I think that he wanted to instead emphasize the 2nd layer of Lovecraftian horror beyond the grasping tentacles, a horror driven by a tremendous and possibly/maybe/almost certainly malign world[14]. Area X pulls off simple impossible feats like time dilation and a barrier that transports things elsewhere (or nowhere). More concerning is the fact that Area X knows what humans look like. It’s an alien artifact, and somehow (something like the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness turns out to be right?) knows what makes up a human, recognizes them as special and in need of twisting, and can’t help but twist with powers beyond our understanding. There’s something large and unspeakably powerful stalking humanity, and it is hungry.

Or maybe it’s not deliberately stalking humanity, and it’s just engaging sub-conscious level reactions, and everything it has done so far is the equivalent of rolling over in its sleep: how would Area X know it just rolled over a butterfly of an expedition? This implies a second question: what happens when it finally wakes up?

It all reminds me of The Expanse series. Sure, there’s the radically simplified political/economic/military squabbling and made for action movie plot, but the protomolecule is what I’m thinking about. “It reaches out it reaches out it reaches out“: an entire asteroid of humans melted down for spare parts by the protomolecule are kept in abeyance for use, living and being killed again and again in simulation until the brute force search finds something useful happening (which in turns reminds me of the chilling line “There is life eternal in the Eater of Souls”.) Thousands die and live and die, all to check a cosmic answering machine.

If we want to draw an analogy, the first level of horror draws from being powerless in the face of malign danger: think of the axe murderer chasing the cheerleader. The second level of horror draws from the entirety of humanity being powerless in the face of vast malign danger. Samuel L. Jackson can handle an axe murderer, but up against the AM from “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”? No contest[15].

(We could even go further, and think about the third level as malign forces of nature: Samuel L. Jackson vs the concept of existential despair might be an example, not on the level of “overcoming your inner demons” but “eradicating the concept as a plausible state of mind for humans to be in”[16]. Now that I think about it, it would have been an interesting direction to take The Quantum Thief’s All-Defector, fleshing it out as a distillation of a game theoretic concept like Moloch. Maybe there’s room for a story about recarving the world without certain malign mathematical patterns… well, maybe without religious overtones either.)

But we’ve only been looking at what the rock of Area X has been doing to the humans. What about the hard place of the Southern Reach agency, and what they do to humans? The agency continually sends expeditions into a hostile world, getting little in return, and pulls stunts like herding rabbits into the boundary without rhyme or reason. In the face of failure to analyze, they can only keep sending people in, hoping that an answer to Area X will pop back out if they just figure out the right hyperparameter of “which people do we send?”.

In other words: a questionably moral quasi-government agency, operating from the shadows to investigate and prepare to combat a unknown force that might destroy all of humanity? And as if it wasn’t close enough, the SRT throws in the line “What if containment is a joke?”, and I almost laughed out loud. It’s all a dead ringer for the Foundation in the SCP universe.

A little background: SCP is one of those only-possible-with-the-internet media works[17], a collaborative wiki[18] detailing the workings of the Foundation, an extra-governmental agency with an international mandate to, well, secure, contain, and protect against a whole bevy of anomalous artifacts and entities. SCP. As is with wikis there is an enormous range of work: some case files detail tame artifacts (a living drawing), or problems solvable with non-nuclear heavy weapons (basically a big termite), or with nukes (a… living fatberg?), or something a 5-year old might come up with if you asked them to imagine the most scary possible thing (an invincible lizard! With acid blood!).

And then there’s things a bit more disquieting. Light that converts biological matter to… something elseInfectious ideasAn object that can’t be described as it is, just as it is not (it’s definitely not safe).[19]

Area X slots into this menagerie well, an upper tier threat to humanity. It’s utterly alien and unpredictable, actively wielding unknown amounts of power to unknown ends. With the end of SRT, it seems likely that an “XK Class End of the World scenario” is in progress, a real proper apocalypse pulling the curtains on humanity.

On the other hand, the Southern Reach/Central agencies are vastly less competent at handling existential threats than the Foundation (this, despite a mastery of hypnosis the Foundation would kill for[20]). Part of it is the nonsensical strategy: for crying out loud, Central sends a mental weapon in to try and provoke Area X, and to what end? To hasten the end of the world? Then Lowry gaining control of the Area X project was absolutely atrocious organizational hygiene, a willful lack of consideration that contamination can go past biological bacteria and viruses, that the molecular assembly artifact under study can change your merely physical mind. An O5 Foundation overseer would have seen dormant memetic agents activate and rip through departments, and would take note of a field agent turned desk jockey that started accumulating more and more soft power in the branch investigating the same anomaly that nearly took his life…

Back to the first hand, both works partly derive their horror from the collision of staid and sterile office politics with the viscerally supernatural. Drawing from the savanna approximation, we weren’t built to work in cubicles, and there were definitely no trolleys, much less trolley problems[21]. And office organizations are unnatural, but are the most effective way we’ve found to get a great many things done. So press the WEIRD but effective organizational tool into service to call the shots on constant high-velocity high-stakes moral problems, except it’s not people on the tracks but megadeaths, and you start to get at why it’s so unnerving to read interdepartmental memos about how to combat today’s supernatural horror[22].

And there’s the “sending people to their death” aspect of both organizations, which conflicts with their nominally scientific venture: at least no one pretends the military hierarchy is trying to discover some deeper truth when it sends people into battle. So the faceless bureaucracy expends[23] their people[24] to chart the ragged edges of reality[25], and gets dubious returns back. The Southern Reach gets a lighthouse full of unread journals, the Foundation usually just figures out yet another thing won’t destroy an artifact of interest.

And as an honorable mention, the Laundryverse by Charlie Stross shares strong similarity to both works: Lovecraftian horrors are invokable with complicated math, the planets are slowly aligning, and world governments have created agencies to prepare for this eventuality, deal with “smaller” “supernatural” incidents, and find/house the nerds that accidentally discover “cosmic horror math”. This series focuses a bit more on the humorous side of office hijinks, and focuses on threats a bit more tractable to the human mind: at least many of the threats Bob faces can be hurt with the Medusa camera he carries around.

If you want a taster into the Laundryverse, you could do worse than the freely available Tor stories (Down on the FarmOvertime[26], Equoid (gross!)[27], or the not-really-Laundryverse-but-pretty-damn-similar A Colder War[28], in which I remember Stross being inordinately pleased to include the line “so you’re saying we’ve got a, a Shoggoth gap?”.

In the end, I wasn’t too entirely horrified: the best SCP has to offer rustled my jimmies more than Area X. And, the Laundryverse is somewhat more entertaining than the SRT. And Solaris does the “utterly alien”-alien a bit better. SRT, though, strikes a balance between all these concerns, and has much better writing quality than SCP, and fewer of the hangups that turned me off The Expanse[29].

But let me rant for a bit.

On Goodreads Annihilation has an average 3.6 score. I personally don’t think it deserves such a low score, but a fair number of people were turned off by the characters, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, okay sure fine.

Dark Matter, a nominally science fiction novel, has a 4.1. 4.1! I only see acclaimed classics and amazing crowd favorites with those sorts of scores.

The problem is that Dark Matter is FUCKING TERRIBLE. I know, I complained about this before (on my newsletter), and I’ll complain again, because it’s a fucking travesty that Annihilation got relegated to bargain bin scores compared with an utterly predictable story with trash science and characterization so bland doctors prescribe it when you are shitting your brains out due to a norovirus infection[30].

Maybe I can say it another way:

Where lies the darkness that came from the hand of the writer I shall bring forth a fruit rotten with the tunnels of the worms that shine with the warmth of the flame of knowledge which consumes the hollow forms of a passing age and splits the fruit with a writhing of a monstrous absence which howl with worlds which never were and never will be. The forms will hack at the roots of the world and fell the tree of time which reveals the revelation of the fatal softness in the writer. All shall come to decide in the time of the revelation, and shall choose death[31] while the hand of the writer shall rejoice, for there is no sin in writing an action plot that the New York Times Bestseller list cannot forgive[32].

Again, a fucking travesty. Christ.

[1]  Not so recently by the time this post is published. I’m still a slow writer.

[2]  Okay, it’s a little too clever for it’s own good.

[3]  Surely there is Control/Grace rule 34. Or anyone/thousand-eye mutated Biologist. But as far as I know Biologist-husband is the only canon pairing.

[4]  I almost forgot these were a thing while reading Annihilation, so a quick refresher: “… a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to ‘a safe place.'”.

[5]  If you want a flavor of the info dump sort of style of The Quantum Thief, I recommend “Variations on an Apple” as an even more extreme example: I suspect that normal people feel the same way reading The Quantum Thief as when I first read that story.

[6]  Except where SRT slowly reveals the unnaturalness of the world, The Quantum Thief revels in it, fills the tub with weird and takes a luxurious bath. Like, it seems like Hannu tried really hard to get the “Toto, I don’t think we’re on Earth anymore” senses tingling right in the first sentence.

[7]  Well, if you’re willing to put up with/enjoy the made up words.

[8]  I mean, I do wonder if the author was too bad of a writer to pull off something less stereotypical while retaining the alien world, but maybe it was intentional. Sure, the writer has written some cringeworthy stuff (I never knew someone could string together the word “kawaii” so poorly), but that’s what the internet has given us, government officials with a publicly available teenager history.

[9]  Charlie Stross has more thoughts about drowning people with future shock as a genre, namely that it isn’t productive any longer because we’re already in a (future?) shocking world.

[10]  Breathing cafeteria wall notwithstanding.

[11]  Because EEG is somehow magical? Well, Solaris was written in the 1960s, so some amount of leeway is necessary. But even if you replace the EEG with some other brain state, you have to wonder what exactly Solaris would be doing with it… “Data can’t defend itself” and all that.

[12]  Another alternative is the cactus that doesn’t lift a finger to attain stated goals.

[13]  It turns out to be surprisingly understandable once you finish the trilogy, even if it reads like a digested the Old Testament.

[14]  Yeah, we’re ignoring the icky parts of Lovecraft.

[15]  I’m ignoring the fact that any movie plot would somehow have Samuel L. Motherfuckin’ Jackson end up the winner: it’s too bad that our widely known “tough guy” archetypes are all actors, which then implies the presence of Hollywood plot armor.

[16]  General memetic hazards might be another example: Roko’s Basilisk is a shitty example of one.

[17]  Other examples I know of are Football in the Year 17776 (previously), Deep Rising (a little less so, it’s just a comic+music), Homestuck (a little less so, it’s just a walls of text+animations), and every piece of interactive fiction: for example, Take (and spoiler-ific analysis).

[18]  It seems almost like a fandom that didn’t coalesce around an existing body of work/author, one that just birthed into the void without a clear seeding work.

[19]  This isn’t the best that SCP has to offer. It’s just that there’s so damn much of it, and it’s not like I’m keeping records on which pages are the best.

[20]  A good life heuristic: if the Foundation would kill to get some capability, maybe you should rethink trying to get that capability.

[21]  But maybe we don’t want to be good at solving trolley problems?

[22]  The dispassionate Foundation reports are effective at conveying the sense of wrongness. There’s a brutal rhythm to the uniform format, leaving a feeling that in order to fight the monsters out there we had to suppress our humanity until we became monstrous in our own way.

[23]  Interesting yet morbid comment: “Well, you were properly expended, Gus. It was part of the price.”.

[24]  New head canon (if such a thing could be considered to exist in the SCP-verse): the replication crisis was suppressed by the Foundation to maintain the facade of the Milgram obedience experiment, which is useful for subconsciously convincing D-class they will eventually follow orders.

[25]  Line stolen from qntm‘s Ra (chapter link).

[26]  The frame story is a bit eye roll inducing, but I understand a man’s gotta publish.

[27]  No, really, it’s gross. Stross: “Stross explains his idea about the life cycle of unicorns to Scalzi and Anders. When he stops retching, Scalzi’s body language changes until it eerily matches Anders. ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ he says with icy-sober politeness, and beats a hasty retreat.”.

[28]  Home to my go-to chilling quotes “There is life eternal in the Eater of Souls” (previously referenced) and “Why is hell so cold this time of year?”.

[29]  Namely, the incredibly simplified politics and anti-corporation messages set up puppet villains that aren’t interesting: I’d be more into it if the trade offs were more nuanced. It’s still a good “Holden and friends fly around and have adventures” series, though.

[30]  The BRAT diet is bland for a reason: ask me how I know this!

[31]  No, not being emo here: the clones of the main character of Dark Matter (don’t make me look this up, please) end up choosing to fight each other because they can’t figure out functional decision theory. This would be fine, if the main character weren’t ostensibly eminent physics professor material.

[32]  Everything is based on some correspondence with what I actually mean, which fits with what Jeff VanderMeer also did with the original “strangling fruit” prose.