Out of nowhere, Area X appeared. No one knows why or where from. In an effort to answer those questions, Southern Reach has sent out teams to research Area X. A different fate befalls each one, and now they’re up to group twelve, consisting of an all female team who have no idea what they’re getting into.
What do I even say about a book that might easily be in my top five for this year? I adored this. It’s everything I love about science fiction combined with everything I love about horror. It does everything right. It was a mysterious and thrilling page-turner. It was compact, concise, and affecting. And it even managed to do things with characters that I’ve never seen done before in this genre.
For starters, it’s an all-female cast. All of them have what is considered predominantly male professions. You will not find hysteria and tears here when things get tough. There’s an emphasis on science and logic. Even our main narrator has flaws that are typically considered for male characters only, in that she’s emotionally unavailable, socially awkward, and logical to the point of seeming downright cold. The previous expedition was an entirely male team, and when we hear more details about that, they come off as way more unorganized and broken down than the female team. I can’t even express how much I appreciated that VanderMeer did this. That he broke those gender boundaries and rejected the stereotypes. This book is so feminist that I’m surprised more people haven’t latched onto it as an example of how gender-blind science fiction should be.
The biologist (all the characters are known only by their professions) can be seen as an unlikeable character, and I understand that thwarted a lot of people in reading it. They hated her. I admit that I don’t see it. We’re reading her journal, and while she does give some insight into her reasons for being there and her life before Area X, she still struggles to be open. I think in her writing style, what she clearly values, and how the most romantic she can be is in writing scientifically, VanderMeer created a very unique person. And he wrote her incredibly well. She was the perfect character to face a situation like the one she’d presented with and be perfectly transparent and fascinated but also not overly Maudlin. But then I’ve never struggled with needing to love a character to find them interesting and wanting more of their story. In a way, I did find things to love with the biologist. Mainly that she was so different than most of what I read regarding female characters.
The story itself raises questions, answers some, and leaves others for sequels as this was the first book in a trilogy. It’s made me absolutely ravenous for the next two books but not pissed about cliffhangers, so I’d say in that regard he struck a good balance. Enough to keep you reading, but not enough to feel frustrating as this book does have a loose conclusion to it.
I definitely intend to keep reading as I’m fully invested already, just from this slim volume. I think for fans of cosmic horror and any kind of weird fiction, this is for you. Do try to keep an open mind, as this doesn’t have the trope-y, sci-fi protagonists we’re all used to.