This is a mesmerizing, tense, unsettling science fiction psychology thriller about the 12th expedition into an area called Area X. Area X is apparently a part of a sea-coast that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades; most of what humans had built there has decayed back into nature. It is being investigated by a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach. (Who really trusts what such an agency might say or do?)
The first expedition came back and said everything in Area X was fine. The second ended in mass suicide, the third in a bloody gun battle as the members killed each other. The members of the seventh returned mysteriously over 18 months, but all died of cancer within weeks of returning.
The main character is a biologist, the wife of a medic in the seventh expedition. The whole book is told in first person from her POV. All members of the 12th expedition are women: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist who is the oldest and the leader of the expedition.
The book isn’t clear about what the Border is that has cut off Area X, although there’s a suggestion that things aren’t what they seem (the Border is something that causes hallucinations; that’s why everyone who crosses it has to be hypnotized to remain calm). The Border is also moving out into the land surrounding Area X. Sounds like enough to motivate Southern Reach’s “good” side, right?
It comes out that the psychologist has planted hypnotic orders in all the expedition members. Some orders force them to see Area X in certain ways. So our perceptions of Area X are themselves suspect.
For example, they discover a structure the narrator insists on calling a tower although only the top floor or two appear above ground with the rest descending underground. Together, the surveyor and the narrator descend into the Tower, and it becomes clear that the narrator sees things that the surveyor doesn’t.
(At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that one order implanted in each of them is to suicide. Did the 2nd expedition kill itself on command?)
They find things that previous expeditions had reported, like a mysterious empty lighthouse on the shore of the sea. They find the tower I mentioned earlier, where something mysterious and deadly produces living words (made of an unknown biological life form) that spirals up along the walls inside the tower. The words include:
“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms”
that continues on endlessly in that vein. Eventually the biologist reconstructs additional words from a coral-like frieze on the wall beneath the living words:
“Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world … God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness … Chosen for the service of a higher power.”
She finds (or hears) similar words coming from creatures and plants in Area X. As if the life or living reality in Area X is endlessly talking to itself.
Did the surveyor and the biologist both see the words? Only the biologist sees that the Tower seems to be breathing, its walls moving in and out.
Later, the anthropologist’s body is found down in the tower, her intestines ripped out and her body covered with a green glowing fungus. She had gone there seeking the source of the mysterious words. So apparently she could see the words.
As things go on, the psychologist disappears and the surveyor decides that the expedition’s over: “Best thing we can now is return to the border and await extraction.” The biologist leaves her behind, hiking alone to the lighthouse which appears to have been the central interest of many of the previous expeditions.
In the lighthouse, she finds a room filled with journals from the previous expeditions, containing information that didn’t make it out of Area X. The journals are just dumped into the room from a trapdoor in the ceiling, forming a messy, damp heap. Was someone hiding them? The bottom of the heap is moldy and rotting. It appears that at least some of the information dumped there is known by the Southern Reach agency.
Clearly, a lot more expeditions have gone into Area X than just 12, possibly for as many years as Area X has existed. Or even longer! (Perhaps time travel is also occurring?)
She also finds the psychologist, sitting upright at the base of the tower with numerous broken bones. They psychologist says she lept from the top when she thought something terrifying was rushing towards her. (Is she also under some hypnotic compulsion she doesn’t know about? Or was she attacked by something from Area X?)
She is also infected with the glowing fungus. The narrator talks with the psychologist, receiving some suggestive (but not necessarily reliable) answers, then the psychologist dies, asking to be left there, as the fungus continues to spread.
The narrator reads some of the journals, (including those of her deceased husband) but they don’t necessarily help clarify anything.
She then returns to the camp, where the surveyor shoots and hits her twice, demanding to know what she did with the psychologist and wondering aloud if the narrator is human anymore. That’s a good question, because the narrator shoots the surveyor when “the brightness” growing within her enables her to sense where the surveyor is crawling towards her through the high reeds of the swamp lying between the camp and the lighthouse.
When the narrator finds and reads the surveyor’s journal, the journal is blank. The surveyor has been faking her hours of journal-writing sessions. Except for a single sentence that suggests that the surveyor “took care of” the psychologist.
By the end of the story, the biologist is alive, partially taken over by the fungus. “Partially” only because the fungus has had to pause while healing her two bullet wounds. (Seems like this fungus has some benefits!) Then she decides not to return to the Southern Reach agency, but to leave the camp and head north, the direction that she thinks her husband may have taken when he somehow walked out of Area X and returned back home.
Vandermeer’s style is crisp, with a nice awareness of rhythm and the affect of rhythm on building mood and emotion. The characterizations of people; the narrators’ thoughts, feelings and motivations; “reality(ies)” of Area X itself are crystal-clear. Everything is there. But despite the clarity, everything is still shrouded in mystery. The meanings are absent, vague, conflicting, questionable, unreliable. That helps maintain a nice tension throughout the story.
When they arrived in Area X, the narrator finds out that the linguist who started the expedition with them outside of Area X didn’t come in with them:
“‘She had second thoughts,’ the psychologist told us, meeting our questions with a firm gaze. ‘She decided to stay behind.'”
Is this a suggestion that we should be very suspicious of the language we’re reading? (Of language itself?) There are points where the narrator talks about what happened in her life before the expedition: her various biological researches, her marriage, her husband’s death. But – given the embedded hypnotic commands and the psychologist’s suggestion that Southern Reach may have implanted false memories – how much of that can we trust?
The narrator’s name is never used (as far as I recall) and the narrator never uses the other expedition members’ names. She refers to them by their specialties. Yet it doesn’t feel distancing, like I’d have expected. It feels right because it’s the way the narrator is: kind of distant, apart from the others. One of the narrator’s preferences even from before the expedition is to be alone, studying nature, rather than being around or interacting with people. Even her husband only calls her “Ghost bird”. Is she a ghost, not really there? A bird always flying away? Both?
This book intrigues me enough to want to read it again. It seems to connect with one of the themes Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories: how much “reality” is determined by our individual thoughts, feelings, beliefs. In the Mythago Wood mythos, what appear as archetypes in the mind – or even concentrated, willed thoughts – take on physical reality as mythagos with a life of their own that continues on and changes subtly from appearance to appearance, ringing endless variations on the archetype.
Similarly, how much is “real” (in Area X outside the characters) and how much is “real” (inside their possibly warped perceptions and memories) in Area X? Are they even IN Area X, or are they really just handcuffed to the chairs they were seated in before departure? (The narrator notices handcuffs on the arms of the metal chairs they waited in before the psychologist hypnotized them to cross the Border.)
I’m looking forward to the two final volumes; the second, Authority, is due in May 2014 and the third, Acceptance, in September 2014. If they turn out as well as this one, I may have a new trilogy to add to my collection!