Saturday, September 13, 2014

This is No Roadside Picnic: Fungal Intelligences, Slippery Time & Mutagenic Horrors in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

It's been quite some time since I last dedicated space to a contemporary novel, not since the last major books by Wu-Ming, Lethem, Bolaño and Wallace, in fact. So here we are with a new trilogy penned by the author of such inventive post-human Dante-esque sci fi works as "Veniss Underground", the rich world building mythic cultures of "City of Saints and Madmen", and the Biopunk Noir of the award winning "Finch". Jeff VanderMeer has in this new trilogy of books, invented himself once again as a more nuanced, rich and possibly more mature voice in the world of New Weird Fiction', a genre of which he has been the vanguard for over a decade. Lauded by both those in the shared post-Cyberpunk genre fiction landscape (BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow being a particular champion), as well as the larger literary community, his newest has met with outstanding reviews from the likes of Adam Robert for the Guardian, "Weird Fiction Comes of Age: VanderMeer Completes his Haunting Trilogy", Nial Alexander for TOR, "The End is the Beginning: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer" and Scott Hutchins for the NYT, "Deciphering a Lost World: Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer".

Released as three novels over the course of this past year, "Annihilation", "Authority" & "Acceptance" collectively comprising the The Southern Reach Trilogy. Like many of his past works, the world his protagonists populate in this trilogy is one of technological advancement and great and often terrifying biological wonders and diversity. The latter usually set in motion by the former. No exception here, as Lydia Millet's review for the LA Times, "Jeff VanderMeer's 'Annihilation,' Fungal Fiction Grows on You" suggests this is a changed Earth, where a mysterious geographic, biological and potentially metaphysical 'Zone X' presents both enticing and repelling wonder and horrors. His approach to these subjects, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher's Weekly both cite Lovecraft, Borges and the Strugatsky Brothers' "Roadside Picnic" as entry points into this fantastical, thematically and narratively warped world in their respective reviews. A world tinged with Poe-like unease and microbiological, pulsing, indecipherable, metaphysical(?) workings outside human comprehension. An incomprehension inflated on the reader's end by the novels own non-linear structure, wrongfooting preconceptions that have built up from their attempts at interpreting Zone X in the first volumes. By the end of the trilogy VanderMeer has managed to avoid the banality of the literal and artfully opaque both, while generating some genuine emotional charge along the way. That the Southern Reach Trilogy has found a fully realized, satisfying and substantial manner of paying off so much mysteriously tense apprehension, high-science, existential unknowns (and suggested metaphysics), is no small feat. In addition, as a post-read enhancement, VanderMeer himself is supplying an ongoing series of annotations to the novels posted at LitGenius.