Sometimes, when I read a book, or become immersed in a particular kind of film, I begin searching. Searching for what—I’m not sure I even know. Maybe truth. Maybe revelation. Maybe I’m searching for that magic analogy that will help me to understand the human condition in a way I couldn’t have understood it before. Maybe I’m searching for a copy of myself. I don’t know. None of that seems perfectly correct, but none of it seems perfectly incorrect either. I suppose that’s why I begin searching in the first place.
Maybe you do this too, and if you do, then you know how often that search can end in disappointment. Truly, you end up having projected importance onto a story that was nothing more than smoke and mirrors from the outset. Most often, the story is a mechanism created to hold your attention, and nothing more. You are left searching for a greater meaning that was never there. Sometimes, when a storyteller is actually trying to convey greater meaning, they only capture a glimmer, just for a moment, but ultimately lose grasp of it, and something promising falls apart. Your search leaves you feeling unfulfilled.
So, if you have been on that ambiguous search that I’m talking about, then you also know that disappointment. If you know that search, then you also know there’s a trap to fall into. You know what your weaknesses are. You know the smoke and mirrors that get you every time. It’s the hook you will always take, no matter how many times it leaves you strung up on someone’s line.
The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, Annihilation, is the hook that I had to take, knowing that I was setting myself up for likely disappointment. Its smoke created the perfect screen to pique my curiosity, and its mirrors reflected the silhouettes that I had to chase down. That first book devoured me so completely that I was ashamed of how much I succumbed to it. After finishing, I moved on to the second book like a junkie injecting their fix, cursing the poison that had gained mastery over me. I had begun that ambiguous search again.
If the first book had set the hook, the second book, Authority, was reeling me in at a ferocious rate. I read and re-read passages as if they were incantations, sure to produce a revelatory vision. I regarded the book as if I had stumbled upon some ancient scroll that could unbind the universe. Damn it, I was caught up in it. When I tried to tear my head away from it, it still had me pondering its greater meaning. It was a pressure buried in my thought, it was a brightness embedded in my chest, its shadows were at the corners of my eyes, I could feel it on my fingertips, and I couldn’t wash it off.
The book had me ready to receive that message that I’m always searching for. I wanted it so damn bad. I was ready to peer down into the winding darkness, I was ready to walk across the swirling light of the void, I was ready to jump into the abyss, and the whole time I would be praying that this time would not end in disappointment. This time there had to be something worthy of the search. This time there had to be something that should be found, that needed to be found.
I burst through the surface of the third book, Acceptance, knowing that I had left myself vulnerable to another let down. Yet, as I read along, I realized that I would not be let down. This time, unlike so many expeditions that had come before it, I did find something worth the search. There it was, shining upon the surface of the grass, moving below the water like a great gray shadow, flitting through the air like an alien dust, exactly what I was looking for, exactly what I am always looking for.
• • •
I don’t know how to begin to review a work such as The Southern Reach Trilogy. I don’t know how to evaluate it, quantify it, or qualify it. I sure as shit don’t know how to parse it into a few paragraphs that will convince you that it is worthy of your attention. All I can communicate to you is that it is worthy of your attention because it holds within its pages something true. It’s something we just couldn’t find the right analogy for.
A little embarrassed, he said, “That fish down there sure is frightened of you.”
“Huh? It just doesn’t know me. If it knew me, that fish would shake my hand.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you could say to convince it of that. And there are all kinds of ways you could hurt it without meaning to.” Watching those unblinking eyes with the gold streaks—the dark vertical pupil—that seemed like a fundamental truth
• • •
Dylan Lee Peters
Author of The Dean Machine and The Everflame Series