It is winter in Area X. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting.
In Acceptance, the last installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was... well. That'd be telling.
Because the Word was whatever you wanted it to be. The Word was possibility. The Word was promise. For in the Word was the beginning, to boot, and beginnings are simple. They're questions, essentially. It follows, then, that endings are answers. And it is far harder to answer questions satisfactorily than it is to ask 'em.
Acceptance is the end of the Southern Reach series, which began with Annihilation—with its countless cosmic questions. What is Area X? Where did it come from? Who—or what—created it? Not to mention: when? And why?
Readers are apt to approach Acceptance expecting answers, and they'll find a fair few, to be sure; Jeff VanderMeer does indeed complete the sinister circle of the Southern Reach series here. But when all is said and done, much of the mystery remains. Area X is, in the end, as unknowable as it was when we breached its impossible border at the very beginning of the trilogy. It has lost none of its promise. Possibilities still spring from its fantastical firmament. In the final summation, I can't conceive of a finale more fitting.
Those who came away from the second section of said series less than satisfied will be relieved to hear that Acceptance isn't the big pivot Authority was. In fact, there are familiar faces everywhere. The biologist from the expedition explicated in Annihilation is back, albeit briefly; so is the psychologist "who had, in fact, also been the director of the Southern Reach and had overriden all objections to led them, incognito." Her stalwart second in command—who we were introduced to in book two—also pops up at a point; as does Control, who oversaw the agency in her absence; and Ghost Bird, an inexplicable figure who is and is not the biologist.
He and she are of particular interest. Following the unearthly events at the end of Authority, Control and Ghost Bird have escaped into Area X together. Between "her need for lived-in experience to supplant memories not her own" (p.37) and his internal endeavour to accept how far he has fallen, and how fast, they make a dubious but suitable duo:
She had no interest in last chances, last desperate charges into the guns of the enemy, and something in Control's affect made her believe he might be working toward that kind of solution. Whereas she was not yet committed to anything other than wanting to know—herself and Area X. (p.33)
To that end, she takes charge of the party, and convinces Control that they should travel to an island off the forgotten coast—to an island with a lighthouse that may be the mirror image of the one explored before by the biologist.
In a very real sense, then, she is set on asserting her own identity... just as Control's conception of himself—as the man in charge, the master of the situation—utterly crumbles:
He felt like he was crossing one of the dioramas from the natural history museum he had loved so much—intriguing, fascinating, but not quite real, or not quite real to him. Even if the effects had not yet manifested, he was being invaded, infected, remade. Was it his fate to become a moaning creature in the reeds and then food for worms? (p.83)
Not if he has anything to do with it, no. But does he, ultimately?
Intertwined with this tale, we spend quite some time with the director, who, as a girl, lived on the lost land that Area X supplanted. Her chapters take place in and around the Southern Reach before the events of Annihilation, and so serve as a document detailing, among other things, how the ill-fated expedition which kicked off the trilogy came about. If you want answers—and of course you do—this is where you'll find 'em, folks.
Before that, though, there's Saul's story: the narrative around which the others are arranged, in which we learn how the lighthouse keeper—a preacher, previously—became the creature creeping around the deepest reaches of the tower, or tunnel, or topographical anomaly, that has drawn so many into its endless depths. Saul's predestined descent into that insensible hell is the tragedy at the heart of this devastating text, and it begins with a simple splinter:
The splinter was an insect bite. Or an overture. An intruder. Or nothing, nothing to do with this.[...] The Light Brigade. They'd given him an experimental drug or exposed him to radiation with their equipment. And the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for their is no sin in shadow or in the light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive. (p.312)
In this way, past, present and future come together in Acceptance. In addition to what is, we experience what was, and we see what will be, all because of a war fought between what is known and what is not—specifically between the Southern Reach and the alien elements of Area X. As the director laments: "In some fundamental way [...] they have been in conflict for far longer than thirty years—for ages and ages, centuries in secret. Central the ultimate void to counteract Area X: impersonal, antiseptic, labyrinthine, and unknowable." (p.234)
It is an extraordinarily ambitious book that expands where others would contract. To wit, Acceptance may frustrate its neediest readers, and unlike Annihilation and Authority—novels which could be gorged upon in whatever order—it's not even slightly standalone, excepting Saul's story. In every other respect it represents a drawing together of threads in advance of an ending bravely unafraid to ask questions that will never now be answered.
Nor need they be, because the ending of Acceptance is a beginning to boot. Listen closely, and you can hear it even from here: "a kind of faint and delicate music in the distance, and something that whispered to you before is whispering again, and then you're dissolving into the wind." (p.7) Like a suggestion... an idea... a dream, indeed. It's bold, and not a little brilliant—similar to the series it completes: a landmark of the modern genre in the making.
Together, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance describe a dark fantasy—commingled as it is with cosmic horror and slivers of science fiction—that deserves to be read and remembered decades hence. Weird fiction has never, ever been better.