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Aug 12

Book Review: Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

What’s It About

It’s the third and final book in the Southern Reach series.  Do I need to say more?

Representative Paragraph

The majesty of the natural world – the known and the unknown…

Once, from this vantage, [Saul Evan’s had] seen something vast rippling through the water beyond the sandbars, a kind of shadow, the grayness so dark and deep it had formed a thick, smooth shape against the blue. Even with his binoculars he could not tell what creature it was, or what it might become if he stared at it long enough. Didn’t know if eventually it had scattered into a thousand shapes, revealed as a school of fish, or if the color of the water, the sharpness of the light, changed and made it disappear, revealed as an illusion. In that tension between what he could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world, he felt at home in a way he would not have five years ago. He needed no greater mysteries now than those moments when the world seemed as miraculous as in his old sermons. And it was a good story for down at the village bar, the kind of story they expected from the lighthouse keeper, if anyone expected anything from him at all.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely, but you won’t get the full effect if you haven’t read Annihilation and Authority.

Commentary

Acceptance is probably the most accessible of the three Southern Reach novels.  That doesn’t mean you can or should skip Annihilation or Authority.  To appreciate the trilogy in its full, off kilter glory, you need to read each book in order.  However, in terms of storytelling and structure, Acceptance is an easier novel to get a handle of.

There’s a few reasons for this.  The first, and most obvious, is that this is the novel where Vandermeer starts to reveal the origins of Area X.  Well, sort of.  There isn’t necessarily a single source of truth, or a long monologue from one of the characters explaining what Area X is.  The closest we get is Ghost Bird’s* following epiphany (warning – the quote is spoilerific):

She saw or felt, deep within, the cataclysm like a rain of comets that had annihilated an entire biosphere remote from Earth. Witnessed how one made organism had fragmented and dispersed, each minute part undertaking a long and perilous passage through spaces between, black and formless, punctuated by sudden light as they came to rest, scattered and lost—emerging only to be buried, inert, in the glass of a lighthouse lens. And how, when brought out of dormancy, the wire tripped, how it had, best as it could, regenerated, begun to perform a vast and preordained function, one compromised by time and context, by the terrible truth that the species that had given Area X its purpose was gone.

So, yes, some questions are addressed*, including greater insight into character motivations and who knew what and when.  That makes Acceptance a quicker read, more of a page turner than its predecessors.  But it’s not the only reason the novel is more accessible.  Much of it has to do with the introduction of Saul Evans.

Area X has two prominent locations.  The typographical anomaly – a long, vertical tunnel with words scrawled across its unending walls – and a lighthouse.  When the Biologist visits the lighthouse in Annihilation she sees a faded picture of the lighthouse keeper (she also briefly meets him, or someone who looks like him, at the end of that novel).  The same picture adorns the wall of the previous Director’s office – the Psychologist from Annihilation.  His name is Saul Evans and Acceptance fills us in on his story.

The phrase lighthouse keeper immediately, at least for me, summons up an image of a crusty old loner with a shaggy beard and well-worn pullover.  Saul Evans couldn’t be different.  He was once a preacher, who, in search for inner peace, decides to leave all that behind and tend to a lighthouse.  It’s there where he meets Charlie and falls in love.  He also takes a shine to a young, inquisitive girl named Gloria, who later in life, becomes the Director of a certain secret Government organisation.

Saul is a wonderful character.  It’s fascinating that in a series where so much of the cast – the Biologist, the Director, Control, Whitby – are distant and flawed and obsessed and broken, that we are introduced to a man who is so engaging, so warm and generous of heart.  And while that bastard Jeff Vandermeer will, inevitably, rip all that away, you can’t help but want Saul to somehow survive, to live a long life of love and joy.

Saul’s story may only be a third of the novel, but in a sense he’s the key to the whole series.  Not just because Area X begins with him – he sees a glint in the corner of his eye… a shard of glass?… reaches down to pick it up and although he’s wearing gloves the sliver of light enters his thumb – but because even as he succumbs to Area X, his humanity shines through, his final thoughts directed at those he loves.  And it’s Saul’s humanity that allows us to view Area X as more than just an alien experiment in terraforming or a weird phenomenon that plagues the mind of the Southern Reach personnel, but as a sentient organism that, like all the humans in the story, is struggling to make sense and take control of its surroundings.

Acceptance may not be as intense and atmospheric as the previous two books, but I can’t imagine a more fitting end to a remarkable trilogy of novels.

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* Ghost Bird is a doppelgänger or clone of the Biologist from Annihilation.  We learn in Acceptance that while the doppelganger was sent to the Southern Reach, the real Biologist remained in Area X and in fact ended up on a small island off the shore of Area X.

*As this recent blog post from Vandermeer indicates, the novel features a number of mysteries that aren’t explicitly explained.

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