The Southern Reach has been lost. With no choice but to trust each other, Control and Ghost Bird have formed an uneasy alliance and crossed over the border. One purpose binds them: To finally uncover the true nature of Area X.
In the same place and yet a world away, the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans protects the lens. For Saul, the Forgotten Coast was a safe harbour, an escape from his preaching past. But something long-buried is resurfacing, and Saul’s guardianship augurs a dangerous and inexorable change.
In the conclusion to the strange, luminous Southern Reach trilogy, we press deeper into the unknown, to arrive at a new understanding of what gives us our humanity. As the brightness consumes all that lies in its path, those who remain must choose whether to resist or accept a fate nearly beyond comprehension. Area X may at least reveal its terrible secrets, but the consequences will be as profound as they are terrifying.
VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reaches its climax in Acceptance, sequel to Annihilation and Authority; the title of each book revealing its theme, or the theme of its character-arcs. It’s rather impossible, from that standpoint, to discuss the last in the trilogy without spoilers for the prior volumes, so BEWARE THE SPOILERS!
Acceptance declares its theme with its title; a coming to terms with, an understanding of Area X and the Southern Reach. All the threads of the trilogy are tied up in this volume – or at least, all the smaller threads; the existential ones are, in fact, largely left for the reader to sew up themselves. We follow, separately and on the whole alternatingly, the director of the Southern Reach who had previously only appeared as the psychiatrist in Annihilation and a subject for mental autopsy in Authority; Control, the protagonist of Authority; Ghost Bird, protagonist of Annihilation (sort of) and lynchpin character of Authority; and Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper at the start of it all. In the hands of most authors this might feel messy and repetitious but VanderMeer keeps his threads and characters both separate and, thematically, tied together; each not only has a distinctive voice but also distinctive character arcs, from placid acceptance through defiant resistance.
This finale volume also marks the Southern Reach trilogy’s greatest degree of queerness; while in Authority we learn of Grace’s homosexuality, here, Saul’s relationship with Charlie is not only shown (with all the problems brought by the treatment of and social attitudes towards homosexuality in 1960s America), but is actually instrumental to the plot and to Saul’s character development. Acceptance in fact only shows one romantic relationship, and it is this one; VanderMeer paints it gently, sensitively, and lovingly, and I as a queer reader am very grateful for that.
Acceptance is perhaps most notable for its use and presentation of the Weird ideas that have permeated the Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer’s avoidance of outright horror continues in this volume with a chilling, creeping sensation of something wrong increasing throughout, alongside a Kafkaesque treatment of government and especially secret agencies; this sense of unreality, of smokiness, is achieved through both the language used in the novel and through the events themselves, which are sometimes very explicit about this feeling. The different timelines in the novel also add to this, seeming somehow slightly unmoored from each other, unconnected even though they are intimately connected; it’s a strange feeling and one that should detract from the novel, but instead adds to the air of the numinous, strange and inexplicable.
For a novel that is sold as revealing secrets, Acceptance does very little of that. Instead, it unravels history and theorises; VanderMeer doesn’t give the reader answers about Area X, or rather, he gives answers, but never just one. As we see the different timelines unfold and roll out before and behind the characters, we see the development of Area X and of the Southern Reach, both separate and commingled. VanderMeer doesn’t tell this in a simple narrative structure, but rather through the experiences of Saul and the director, people both peripheral and central to these events; what Acceptance never does is embrace the viewpoint of a character who really understands everything going on, or who has a full grasp on the world and on Area X.
Acceptance is all about the intrusion of Area X into reality, the interactions between the two, and the human responses to that. It’s exactly the conclusion the Southern Reach trilogy needed, and marks absolutely the status of VanderMeer’s trilogy as the ultimate Weird story; numinous, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.