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Literature / The Southern Reach Trilogy

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Cover of the collected edition, titled simply Area X.

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead...

The Southern Reach Trilogy is a book series written by Jeff VanderMeer.

The Southern Reach is a secret government agency responsible for investigating and hiding the existence of Area X, a remote region of swamps and coastline which was one day surrounded by an invisible and nearly impenetrable barrier. Strange phenomena have been occurring in Area X ever since, and the Southern Reach has been sending in team after team in an attempt to find out what was responsible for the Area's creation — and if it poses a danger to the outside world.

The series consists of three volumes.

  1. Annihilation deals with the twelfth expedition into Area X, consisting of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor, who cross the boundary and confront what lies within.
  2. Authority tells of how Control, the new director of the Southern Reach, tries to deal with the aftermath of Annihilation while navigating the labyrinthine structures of the Southern Reach — and its employees.
  3. Acceptance brings it all together by revealing how Area X came to be and how the individual workings of the characters influence what it's going to become.

There is a film adaptation loosely based on the first book, also called Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman.

Tropes appearing this series include:

  • Alien Geometries: The Crawler. When it is described by the biologist she can barely comprehend its edges and while the omniscient narration in Acceptance does a bit better, it still cannot be grasped fully.
  • Amazon Brigade: The 12th expedition is deliberately all female in order throw a new variable to Area X. Barring the anthropologist (and the linguist who drops out before the expedition begins), they're a very tough group and have had additional survival and weapons training prior to the expedition.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Between her complete disdain for all social interactions and completely analytical, unsentimental state of mind, the biologist doesn't seem to be psychologically normal.
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  • Ambiguous Ending: Control has died, but his death triggers a change in the Crawler. Grace and Ghost Bird leave the tunnel and go past the remains of the Southern Reach. It's unknown whether there is a doorway out of Area X anymore and if the terraforming has extended to the rest of the Earth or if Control's death has made the Crawler realize that its mission was pointless.
  • Anachronic Order:
    • In Authority, Control's point of view, while linear in general, tends to jump around the way his thoughts do. One scene would happen, followed by another, only for the narration to skip back and retell elements from the previous scene that had not been told yet, again and again, revealing new layers and information each time.
    • In Acceptance, several points in time are used to tell what is happening and what has happened in the past by way of the time and point of view changing each chapter. The lighthouse keeper serves as the point of view of pre-Area X times, the director's chapters reveal how the twelfth expedition came to be, and Ghost Bird and Control relate what is currently happening.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • Both the biologist and the lighthouse keeper are heavily associated with birds. The biologist is nicknamed Ghost Bird by her late husband and the lighthouse keeper is an avid bird watcher, writing down what kind of birds he's seen on any given day.
    • There's also a lot of imagery relating to rabbits, as the Southern Reach's first attempts to breach the border involved sending hundreds of rabbits in, all of whom disappeared as soon as they touched the border. After Control sees the footage of this, he is haunted by images of rabbits turning into stars and vice versa, an image that comes up later with other characters.
  • Anti-Hero: The biologist is a thoroughly insular and withdrawn character who doesn't seem to care about other humans at all, and may be a sociopath. However, she's the closest thing the series has to a central protagonist.
  • Apocalyptic Log:
    • The lighthouse in Area X contains whole piles of apocalyptic logs: all expedition members keep a notebook of their experiences, and the notebooks of expeditions which never return always find their way to the lighthouse. By the time the biologist finds it, the pile has become alarmingly large.
    • In Acceptance, the lighthouse keeper's journal details odd jobs and animal sightings around the lighthouse but gradually degenerates into apocalyptic babbling and unintelligible scribbles.
  • Arc Symbol: A spiral of light, first seen with the door to Area X and later revealed to be its original source.
  • Arc Villain: While the series as a whole doesn't have an actively malicious antagonist — it's not entirely clear if Area X has some sort of will and even if it does its actual purpose remains unclear — other characters do fill a role in which they oppose or endanger the main characters for stretches of the story:
    • The middle portion of Annihilation has the psychologist going rogue, and the potential threat she represents is the main issue at hand.
    • Authority has both Grace, an incredibly dense and tough Obstructive Bureaucrat who tramples on every attempt Control does at renovating the facilities or research as well as the Voice, Control's contact in Central. The latter ends up putting extreme pressure and stress on Control and also meddles with Grace, causing more more trouble. It's later revealed that the Voice is none other than Lowry, who had been hypnotizing Control all along. Both Grace and the Voice are defeated by Control at the beginning of the third and last part of the book. The Voice is bested when Control figures out its hypnosis and breaks any hold it had on him, shattering Central's grasp on him. Grace in turn is placated when she and Control have a heart-to-heart in which both come to terms with each other and agree to cooperate peacefully.
  • Arc Words:
    • The Crawler's writing, which reads like a warped, vaguely sinister version of a Bible passage and is repeated throughout the trilogy.
    • "Terroir" is a word that comes up a lot in connection to the mystery of Area X, but ends up being used for any given environmental conditions that exist in a given area, with Control thinking how the Southern Reach and Central are terroirs in their own right. Since there's obviously something off with the environment in Area X, the word takes on a sinister connotation, and Control even mishears it as "terror" when Whitby first uses it.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The text lining the walls of the tower reads almost like a warped, vaguely sinister version of a Bible passage: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead... It can be traced back to the lighthouse keeper due to semantic similarities, as he used to be a preacher.
  • Badass Bookworm: In the first book, the biologist rarely alludes to it in her point of view but she notices that she's significantly stronger than the surveyor, who is the team soldier. Later on, she reminisces about how the entire expedition was given extensive physical conditioning and weapons training before they went in. In the second book, where the physical descriptions of many of the characters are given, Control notes that the biologist is almost the same height as him and judging by the muscles between her neck and shoulders, looks very strong. Finally, the biologist survives 30 years in Area X before succumbing to it and turning into a monster that's alien even by Area X standards.
  • Bald Women: The returning expedition members have the hair shaved as part of the decontamination procedure. As a result, the biologist is bald at the beginning of the second novel, Authority.
  • Beast with a Human Face: The moaning creature still has a recognizably human head. Disturbingly, its face seems to be in a permanent expression of agony.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Lowry views himself as Area X's Arch-Enemy and is obsessed with finding a way to "defeat" it, but he proves just as impotent in the face of the unknowable as everyone else, and may even be the unwitting catalyst for Area X's expansion over the whole planet.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The biologist is transformed into an enormous, near-immortal alien with a thousand eyes who can live on land or sea and travel between worlds. Grace and Control are horrified, but for an extreme loner and detail-oriented observer fascinated by new places and transitional ecosystems — is this such a terrible fate?
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Near the end of the first book the biologist muses that her unusual attitude towards society and humanity in general makes her react, both emotionally and practically, very differently than most people would to her findings in Area X.
  • Body Horror: Expedition members are warned to avoid contamination by Area X as it's not know what happened to those who did not return. Though most became part of Area X by turning into animals, some turned into grotesque monsters that are neither animal nor human. The psychologist of the last 11th expedition became the moaning creature, a monster with patchy white skin, too many extremities, a human face and a bone-slicing moan it cannot contain come evening.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: Expedition members get outdated and antique equipment — even down to their clothes — to bring to Area X. They're not allowed contemporary equipment like cellphones or laptops. The surveyor freaks out when she finds out that the one concession to their group, her assault rifle, is nothing more than 30 year old parts cobbled together. The reason for using old equipment is that whatever created Area X can sense the more advanced tech and attack the items along with whoever is using them.
  • But Not Too Foreign: The psychologist is half-Native American, Control is half Latino, and the biologist is about quarter Asian.
  • Came Back Wrong:
    • Area X creates doppelgangers of the people who die in it, but they tend to be... off, with only superficial memories of the original and all with the same docile personality.
    • Ghost Bird is off compared to the other clones. Normally the clones are indistinguishable from each other in what they know and how they act. Ghost Bird retains significantly more of the biologist's personality and memories of Area X.
    • An Area X clone of the Director/Psychologist shows up back at the Southern Reach at the end of Authority. Despite looking exactly like her original self, the clone is so off in some unspecified sense that Control completely flips upon seeing it, and even the ever-loyal Grace is ready to shoot it down mere moments after its arrival.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The immortal plant and the cell phone that Control finds in the former director's office, which eventually allow Area X to expand past the old border.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: An otherwise ordinary broken cellphone brought back from the Eldritch Location Area X, which always somehow returns after being thrown away. Control is stymied by his inability to get rid of it in Authority, and flashbacks in Acceptance reveal that it had previously behaved in a similarly clingy fashion towards the psychologist..
  • Cloning Blues:
    • Features in Authority. The returned copy of the biologist realizes that she's not the original, and is depressed by it. Ghost Bird, however, gets over that rather quickly and retains mostly positive feelings towards the biologist.
    • In Acceptance, a nastier case of Cloning Blues has Whitby fighting his clone self during his and the director's unauthorized trip into Area X. One Whitby dies of strangulation and the other returns with the director, but it's unclear which is which.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Whitby was eccentric before his unauthorized trip into Area X with the director. What he saw there didn't help his state of mind one bit. He drifts in and out of focus, voicing cryptic suggestions, and Control remarks how Whitby's theories make sense only on the surface but descend into outlandish fantasies upon a closer look. This is only increased by the fact that the Whitby who came back may not be the original Whitby.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: All the expedition members are subject to complex post-hypnotic commands. Control comes to believe he's been mentally programmed by Lowry and his mother. Word of God says that Area X may have given Lowry some alien hypnosis techniques.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: The Southern Reach's official job description is containing a nasty but mundane chemical spill.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: The Southern Reach is one for the Government Conspiracy and Government Agency of Fiction, as it is shown to be an underfunded, understaffed backwater of an agency that's hardly made any progress at all in the twenty plus years it's been banging its collective head against Area X, a place where any attempts at progress are hamstrung by limited funding, petty factional infighting, and interdepartmental power games.
  • Decoy Protagonist: In a way, the biologist, as she completely disappears after the first book and is effectively replaced in the narrative by her doppelganger, referred to as Ghost Bird. A good chunk of Acceptance is taken up by her memoirs, but by the next time she's seen in the present, she's transformed into a fearsome amphibious leviathan with a thousand eyes.
  • Disc-One Final Boss:
    • After the psychologist goes rogue 1/3 into Annihilation, everything about her gets increasingly shady and menacing. The biologist finds her on death's door as the third act and final of the book begins, and while said meting is one of the most pivotal moments on the book, she doesn't show up again. Apart from her clone on the finale of Authority, or prominently returning in Acceptance in flashbacks.
    • Authority has both Grace and the Voice being massive obstacles for Control, but he deals with both roughly at the same point in the book. The book is far from over however, and Area X finally makes its move during the book's climax.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: On their first night in Area X, the members of the twelfth expedition taunt the moaning creature in the reeds by moaning back at it. When the moaning gets louder and angrier, however, they quickly realize that this might not be the best idea and desist.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!: The anthropologist shouts this at the biologist when she discovers the fungus-writing in the tower. The biologist doesn't actually touch it, but does get too close and causes her own contamination.
  • Doomed Hometown: The director of the Southern Reach, who is also the psychologist from the 12th expedition, lived in "the forgotten coast", as the place that became Area X used to be known, as a child. This is why she was driven to work at the Southern Reach in the first place.
  • Downer Ending: Authority's climax happens right after Control has defeated both of his opponents and Southern Reach starts making progress for once. The psychologist's clone finally arrives at the Southern Reach, bringing Area X with her. The whole organization falls, Area X is spreading to other points as well, most of the cast is lost at Southern Reach and Control is forced to go into Area X with Ghost Bird on uncertain terms.
  • Dramatic Irony: In Authority, the audience has gotten to read the biologist's notebook (ie, Annhilation), but Control hasn't because the notebooks never make it back to base. So while the audience knows perfectly well that that the "returned" members of the twelfth(ish) expedition can't possibly be the real deal he has no idea.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • All members of the second expedition to Area X committed suicide.
    • The psychologist of the twelfth expedition has a list of commands that are supposed to trigger certain responses in the conditioned members of the expedition. "Annihilation" is the one that is meant to trigger a suicide attempt.
  • Eldritch Abomination: From the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe...
  • Eldritch Location: Area X is one. It is separated from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier, with the only access being through a disorienting glowing corridor that takes between three and ten hours to reach the other side. The landscape inside seems similar to the environment outside, but time flows faster within its border, the wildlife behaves strangely and the stars are in the wrong positions on certain nights...
  • Ensemble Cast: While the first book limits its focus to the biologist, the subsequent books add Control, the psychologist, Ghost Bird, and Saul as major viewpoint characters, each of whom ends up being essential to the central plot.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Expedition members are stripped of their names. During Annihilation no names are used for any of the characters, and the expedition members are only known as the psychologist, the biologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist.
  • Expy: Area X draws a lot of inspiration from the Zone.
  • Failure Hero: Despite his best efforts, Control proves to be out of his league at the Southern Reach and most of his power plays end up being fruitless. He gets better later on, when he's able to figure out that the Voice has been hypnotizing him and works out a way to break the conditioning, as well as becoming essential to destroying or fundamentally changing Area X at the end of the series.
  • Free-Range Children: As a child, Gloria, a.k.a the psychologist, would freely wander around the forgotten coast, usually either hanging out with Saul or wandering the local woods.
  • Friendless Background: The biologist is an extreme introvert who'd much rather observe plants and animals than interact with people and has never had any friends. The closest thing she had to that was knowing the friends of her husband.
  • Foreshadowing: The biologist finds a photo of a little girl and the Lighthouse Keeper when she enters the lighthouse. Shortly after exiting the lighthouse, she finds the dying psychologist and after she dies she loots the corpse for information, finding a note addressed to "S" (which she repudiates without reading). We later learn towards the end of Authority (almost two whole books after) that the Lighthouse keeper is the eponymous "S" aka Saul, who used to be the psychologist's father figure. She is the little girl in the picture. The very last chapter in the series is the psychologist's unread letter to Saul.
  • Gainax Ending: It's not at all clear what happens at the end of Acceptance, save that Control's Heroic Sacrifice has triggered some great change in the mind of the Crawler, either for good or ill.
  • Genius Loci: The Southern Reach treats Area X as a superorganism with its own consciousness, which is shown to be one of the few accurate assumptions they make about it. Its central "brain" seems to be the Crawler.
  • Genre Shift: Annihilation is a very fast paced horror adventure told in the first person, focused on the extremely antisocial and analytic biologist. Authority has a very drastic change into a very slow mystery/investigation cosmic horror story with a spy angle, told in the third person with elements of Second-Person Narration, focused on Control — an extroverted, friendly special ops agent who is Southern Reach's new director. Acceptance mixes them both by returning to the horror adventure style while keeping the mystery and cosmic elements, all while featuring both third person and first person narratives at different points, and focusing both in the antisocial analytic, Ghost Bird, and the extroverted everyman, Control.
  • Government Conspiracy: The Southern Reach, a government agency which hides the existence of Area X with the cover story of a local environmental catastrophe and organizes the expeditions into it. The conspiracy actually extends to the members of the expedition themselves: the maps they are given are deliberately incomplete and they are falsely informed about the numbering of their expedition. There were actually several "11th expeditions" and the final one was 11G.
  • Hell Is That Noise: There's a loud moaning noise which comes from the reeds every evening in Area X. At first, the expedition members taunt it with howling back at it, but when it becomes louder and angrier they desist immediately.
  • The Hero Dies:
    • In Acceptance, it is revealed that after resisting for 30 years in Area X, the biologist ultimately also lost to the corrupting nature of the place. Its made particularly heartbreaking by the fact that the biologist did not gave up thanks to The Power of Love, but once the owl that her husband had been transformed into passes away, she can't continue anymore, and lets it take over.
    • Also in Acceptance, Control chooses to walk through the glowing door at the bottom of the tower. It's not entirely clear what effect this has, save that it kills him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Control's sacrifice at the end of Acceptance appears to cause a great change in the Crawler, potentially causing it to realize the futility of its mission and leave Earth, taking Area X with it. Maybe.
  • Hidden Depths: The members of the 12th expedition aren't solely the roles of psychologist, biologist, surveyor and anthropologist. The anthropologist is also an architect, the surveyor is an ex-soldier and takes the role of the team's military expert, and the psychologist is the director of the Southern Reach, while the biologist is purposely intended to be the Spanner in the Works. Special emphasis must go to the psychologist, as we learn in the subsequent books that not only is she the director of the Southern Reach, but she also grew up on the forgotten coast before it became Area X and was personal friends with the man who would become the vessel for the Crawler. We also learned that she organized the 12th expedition and volunteered to go herself because she thought it was the only way to stop Lowry's senseless, wasteful expeditions and make real progress in understanding Area X. By the end of Acceptance we know more about her than any other character, and she's gone from a shady, vaguely sinister figure of authority to arguably the Big Good of the series.
  • Hostile Terraforming: The Crawler's misguided purpose is to revive the world of its creators by terraforming Earth through returning it to a primeval state even though said creators are long dead.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • The biologist insists on calling the buried structure a tower instead of a tunnel, even though it descends into the earth.
    • Grace insists on calling her former boss the Director, as if she were still in position, even though she has been substituted and there are no indications that she's ever coming back.
  • It's Personal: The psychologist/director used to live in the place that became Area X and her mother disappeared together with everyone else within it when the border came down, which later motived her to work for the Southern Reach no matter the cost.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: One with a lot of questions and very few answers. Authority partially becomes this In-Universe, as a large part of the plot involves Control trying to make sense of the director and Whitby's notes.
  • Juxtaposed Halves Shot: Played With for the cover art of the Area X omnibus, pictured above. The shape is an X, but one stroke is made up of some greens from a tree or shrub, representing Annihilation and its setting, Area X; and the other stroke is a clean red shape, representing Authority and its setting, the bureaucratic Southern Reach. Both elements being depicted together like this represent Acceptance and the aftermath of Area X spreading past its border and engulfing the Reach.
  • Kaiju: The biologist eventually becomes an amphibious leviathan with about a thousand eyes.
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Lowry got red flags over how obsessively the psychologist was applying for a job at the Southern Reach and had her secretly investigated. He discovered that she's Gloria from the forgotten coast and used this information to blackmail her.
  • King Incognito: At the beginning of Authority, it's revealed that the psychologist in Annihilation was the director of the Southern Reach.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: All members of the eleventh expedition to Area X reappeared back at their homes with no memory of what happened in the area or how they'd gotten back.
  • Letter Motif: The books within the trilogy all have one-word titles starting with the letter A: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance. Additionally, the omnibus that collects the entire trilogy in one book is titled Area X.
  • Light Is Not Good: Area X is prominently associated with light. The door takes the form of a massive tunnel of spiraling light, its influence in the characters' minds is referred to as a "brightness", and it's inextricably connected with the lighthouse at the center of Area X. Its original source is a small spiral of light that was trapped for years inside the lens of the lighthouse.
  • Lighthouse Point: The lighthouse is a prominent feature in Area X, which expeditions tend to be drawn to secretly directed by the Southern Reach to distract them from the topographical anomaly and where the expedition members' journals tend to end up in. It's made out to be a safe point but it's obvious that something horrible has happened inside at some point and someone's tried to turn it into a stronghold. There's another, ruined lighthouse on the island and much is made of a possible connection between the two. It's not the lighthouse itself that's important, but the lens.
  • The Lost Lenore: The biologist's husband died some time before the beginning of Annihilation and his death is one of the main catalysts for her change of demeanor and the decision to join the expedition. She finds him in Area X, but he isn't human anymore.
  • Loners Are Freaks: The biologist is extremely detached from the rest of humanity and overly-focused on certain details, leading her to get fired from most of the jobs she had and she was considered a poor candidate for the expedition. Which is why the director picked her. She's so intractable and freakishly self-contained that she cannot be hypnotized and possibly caused her cloning to go wrong, resulting in Ghost Bird retaining far more individuality and memories than the other clones.
  • Mad Scientist: The biologist is this to some degree. Besides being an extreme loner who likely had a slight history of ecoterrorism, she will take absolutely stupid risks to get more research and is almost obsessive with taking samples. The biologist herself realizes this in hindsight, as does Ghost Bird when she thinks about those memories. Ghost Bird also notes that if she ever encountered the biologist, the biologist would most likely greet her by trying to take a sample from her.
    • Members of the Seance and Science Brigade, as given away by their name, were obsessed with the intersection of science and the paranormal, and may have deliberately released Area X by messing with the lighthouse's lens.
  • Magic Feather: Each expedition member is given a black box with the instruction to immediately evacuate should the light bulb on it turn red. The biologist later learns that it doesn't actually measure anything; it's just intended to make them feel safer.
  • Maybe Ever After: John Rodriguez passes through the glowing door at the bottom of the tower to his probable death. This triggers some great change in Area X, and though it's left ambiguous as to whether it's been destroyed or simply transformed in some way, the ending carries a cautiously hopeful feeling as Ghost Bird and Grace walk out into the world.
    • On a smaller scale, the biologist spends thirty years in relative happiness in the company of an unusually well-behaved owl that may or may not be her transformed husband.
  • Meat Moss: After she inhales spores inside the tower the biologist realises that the writing on the wall consists of living organisms and though the tower walls initially appeared to be made of stone, the spores allow her to see that they are actually living flesh.
  • Militaries Are Useless: The border guard from the army can't contain Area X when it breaks through the old borders. Having no special training, the members either get killed off by what the biologist became or they go crazy and turn on themselves.
  • Mind Rape:
    • During her encounter with the Crawler in Annihilation, the biologist experiences being mentally turned inside out by the creature while drowning in light, then getting spat out again.
    • The extensive and invasive psychological conditioning and surgery on the linguist breaks her mentally. The psychologist, as a mercy, allows her to opt out and return home even though the linguist was Lowry's tool.
  • My Greatest Failure: Control's career in law enforcement was basically over after he inadvertently tipped off a white supremacist group he was infiltrating to the identity of his informant, leading directly to her murder.
  • Nameless Narrative: During Annihilation, the main characters are forbidden to tell each other their names. Throughout the narrative, they are referred to only by their job titles: the psychologist, the biologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. The later books in the series reveal the characters' names, except for the biologist, who insists on being called by a nickname instead.
  • Nature Lover: The biologist vastly prefers animals to people.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Name a particularly disturbing scene in Authority or Acceptance, any scene. Chances are, Whitby figures into it somehow. It starts with Control discovering Whitby's nightmarish wall paintings of Area X, with Whitby chilling out on a storage rack among them, and goes to Whitby fighting his own clone at the lighthouse.
  • No Name Given: Expedition members are explicitly forbidden from using each others' names, referring to each other by role instead. In fact, not one character is named in Annihilation, though some of their names are revealed in Authority.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Used very effectively throughout the books, especially with the creatures spawned by Area X. While various Eldritch Abominations are alluded to throughout the series, we only ever get a clear look at a few of them.
  • Not in Kansas Anymore: Grace believes Area X is another planet, but the previous expeditions never stayed long enough to notice. Grace becomes trapped for three years there and mentions the stars are arranged differently on some nights and time moves much faster. The biologist makes the same observation about the night sky.
  • Not So Different: It's shown that the biologist and psychologist are quite similar people at heart, both being introverts who distrust authority and prefer the company of animals to that of people.
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: Central is a powerful organization and has the appearance of an Illuminati-like entity, but it's driven by factionalism. Its priority is dealing with terrorism and ecological collapse, although what it knows about Area X is limited and has largely hit a wall regarding new data, especially with some of its members trying to accumulate power by withholding information.
  • Not So Stoic: An interesting example of in Annihalation. The book is told by the biologist on first person, and is her expedition diary. Her tone and voice never really wavers, making it seem like she is unshakable and unaffected by the horrors she is seeing. In a handful of blink-and-you-miss-it moments, the biologist directly comments on the fact that she is a bit shaken up, but only does so very briefly and it is not apparent in her narration. As a diary, the passages were written after the events happened, so she was more calm. The biggest one is after her final conversation with the Psychologist. Through it the biologist seems fine and keeps a harsh mask to try and force answers out of the psychologist, but her narration later states that she was deeply shaken and unnerved by what she saw and learned. Its made much more apparent when she reads her husband's journal, by that point she was affected severely enough for emotion to be apparent in her narration (these are in fact among the few scenes in the whole trilogy it shows).
  • Obliviously Evil: The Crawler is merely trying to recreate its long lost homeworld, despite that homeworld being dead and its mission obsolete.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: In Authority, Grace makes it known in no uncertain terms that she is still loyal to the old director and will go to every length to undermine anything Control, the newly appointed director, attempts to do and sabotage any change he attempts to make.
  • Oh, Crap!: The biologist gets one when she finds the anthropologist's corpse and Control has his moment when he discovers that the Southern Reach compound has been taken by Area X.
  • Ominous Owl: Inverted. In Acceptance, a letter written by the biologist about her time in Area X tells of how she found a peculiar and very friendly owl on the island. It's never entirely disclosed, but due to the peculiar behavioral patterns of said owl — not taking flight when she approaches, bringing her a dead rabbit, nesting close to her — , she comes to suspect and later believe that this is what Area X transformed her husband into. When the owl passes away, she loses her final drive and connection, ultimately letting the 'brightness' take over her, turning her into a horrible monster.
  • One-Word Title: Each of the trilogy's books has a one-word title, all of which begin with the letter A: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • "Ghost bird" is the nickname given the biologist by her late husband and the only moniker she is known by other than "the biologist". Later, her clone refuses to be called by anything other than Ghost Bird as well.
    • While Control's name is actually given right away in Authority, he asks everyone to call him Control, which remains in place for the remainder of the trilogy. He is only addressed by his name on a handful of occasions or by family members
  • Opposites Attract: The biologist and her husband became a couple because she thought he was energetic and alive while he thought she was mysterious. As they got to know each other after marriage, their relationship hit the rocks... Turns out he's overbearing and she's withdrawn.
  • Parental Substitute: Saul serves as a surrogate father to Gloria, since her parents are separated and she lives with her mom.
  • Posthumous Character: The biologist's husband died before she even went into Area X. Nonetheless, he is a very important character in the book and his expedition journal is pivotal in the final acts of Annihilation. Or... his clone died. He survived inside Area X, but he was turned into an Owl by the corrupting nature of the place. Additionally, the psychologist dies surprisingly early into the trilogy, at roughly 2/3s into Annihilation, but she remains a extremely important character over the entire series due to the fact she was Southern Reach's director, and a key figure to many Southern Reach employees, who are mayor characters in Authority and Acceptance. She is also very prominently featured in Acceptance in several flashbacks.
  • Psycho Psychologist: The psychologist constantly brainwashes the rest of the crew with hypnosis, wantonly sacrifices the anthropologist without a second thought to try and get a sample from the Crawler, and tries to force the biologist to kill herself using said hypnotic commands.
  • Red Herring: Authority reveals that the region that later became Area X was already being investigated by a paranormal study group before the events that created it and that the keeper of the lighthouse at the epicenter of it had been at the position for only a short time, having suddenly resigned from being a preacher in the north, all pointing at some conspiracy. Acceptance reveals the S&SB is just a program from Central to keep an eye on the area and that the keeper was there for completely mundane personal reasons.
    • Authority also mentions that Central has nuclear weapons constantly aimed at Area X. These are never used, or alternatively, if they are used, they end up being utterly ineffective at containing it.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Annihilation is in first person by the biologist as it's her expedition diary, so she is (understandably) nearly as clueless about Area X as everyone else. Over the book she speculates about the nature of Area X and Southern Reach, but she doesn't really get answers. In Authority and Acceptance some questions are solved (albeit not many). Rereading Annihilation with this answers in mind gives a new tone to the biologist's mutterings.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: True to both its Lovecraftian and eco-fantasy inspirations, this story is strongly at the Romanticist end of the spectrum. The unknown is a source of horror and danger rather than discovery and possibility; the "pristine" nature of Area X compares favourably with the toxic pollution and social decay of the normal world; the narrative focus is on the characters' emotions and subjective perceptions; science and logical reasoning are of little to no use; and ultimately there are few to no real answers as to what has been going on the whole time.
  • Room Full of Crazy:
    • When Control is appointed director of the Southern Reach, he finds that the previous director's office includes a door that opens onto a wall covered in the scrawled writing seen in the Area X tower as written by the Crawler. Additionally, he finds a mysterious plant that looks like it's taking nourishment from a dead mouse and an old cellphone in the director's desk, and a huge pile of notes taken on all kinds of surfaces all over and between the books in the former director's office.
    • Later in Authority, Control discovers that one of the scientists has created an even more elaborate Room Full of Crazy in a ceiling crawlspace, featuring oil paintings of animals and creatures from Area X with printed copies of human faces taped to them. A sleeping bag and other things indicate said scientist actually lives there.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The third book reveals that the creator of Area X had spent centuries trapped in the lens of the lighthouse.
  • Second-Person Narration: In Acceptance, the chapters dedicated to the director are written in the second person and present tense, with the director being the one adressed as "you".
  • Secretly Dying: The final book reveals that the psychologist was dying of cancer when she joined the twelfth expedition into Area X, a fact which motivated her because she had nothing to lose and which she kept secret so she wouldn't be forbidden to go on medical grounds.
  • Secret Keeper: The psychologist has been the director for most of the Southern Reach's existence and she also hung around Saul, the lighthouse keeper, when she was a kid. She only escaped the formation of Area X by coincidence.
  • Self-Harm: The biologist discovers that pain holds the transformation at bay, so in her 30-year-stay at Area X she is revealed to have done things such as deliberately stepping on a nail and allowing herself to be bitten by a venomous snake. Grace discovers the biologist's notes and also does some self-harm to stop the change.'
  • Smug Snake: Lowry initially gives off the appearance of being a mysterious Manipulative Bastard, but the more we learn about him the more we come to understand that he's a deeply traumatized, petulant, and unstable man who truly has no clue what he's doing.
  • Sole Survivor: Lowry, of the first expedition. It's hinted that he may have made a devil's bargain to get back across the border.
  • The Spock: The biologist displays little emotion, shuns most human interactions, and approaches everything in a very analytical manner. Played with in that she's shown to have a great reverence for nature that isn't purely based in scientific curiosity.
  • Straight Gay: Saul, the lighthouse keeper, and his boyfriend Charlie, a fisherman, show no stereotypically gay behaviour at all. If they weren't sleeping together, they'd look just like close friends who like to share a beer at the bar.
  • Surreal Horror: Pretty much everything related to the inner workings of Area X. Special mention goes to the climax of Authority, when Control is about to exit the cafeteria in the Southern Reach HQ only to discover that the door has suddenly transformed into a solid wall of flesh.
  • Title Drop:
    • In the first book, "Annihilation" is one of the trigger phrases used by the psychologist to activate post-hypnotic suggestions in the expedition members. It's supposed to force the listener to immediately commit suicide.
    • "Authority" is part of another code phrase, "consolidation of authority", which forces the listener to obey.
    • Acceptance is used in the end of the third book, not as a command, but to mark that nothing will be the same again following Area X's spreading beyond its borders and swallowing the Reach.
  • Touched by Vorlons: The biologist's "brightness", which she gains from inhaling spores in the tower; it renders her immune to post-hypnotic suggestions, and gives her superhuman healing and reflexes.
  • Tragic Monster: A terrifying Eldritch Abomination it may be, but the Crawler is not without sympathy. Something of Saul Evans still remains trapped inside it, and it's all but stated that the endless sermon it constantly writes on the walls is simply the expression of whatever part of his humanity still remains. The inhuman part of the Crawler, the original seed of Area X, is also somewhat sympathetic, as it's implied to be Obliviously Evil at worst, merely attempting to recreate part of its homeworld despite that homeworld being long dead.
  • Transformation Horror: Expedition members entering the Eldritch Location Area X are warned to avoid "contamination" in vague, unspecified terms. They only learn the exact nature of the contamination when their bodies begin transforming. Most turn into animals similar to the existing local wildlife, but sometimes the process goes wrong and results in a hideous abomination.
  • Trigger Phrase: The psychologist implanted the expedition members with post-hypnotic suggestions, which she can activate using trigger phrases she slips into her speech.
  • Uncertain Doom: Applies to the entire world in Acceptance, as it's never made clear how far Area X expanded and whether anything of human civilization still remains. It's heavily implied that, at the very least, Lowry is dead though, as Area X seems to have specifically been seeking him out.
  • Undying Loyalty: Grace to the Director/Psychologist. From running interference to keep her boss's secrets, to outright refusing to believe she's dead, and doggedly obstructing her replacement out of a mixture of grief and anger, Grace will not give up on the Director. Which makes her willingness to put down the Came Back Wrong clone all the more telling.
    • It's also worth noting that, although Grace is openly bisexual, there's no indication that her relationship with the Director ever went beyond the platonic on either side. By all accounts they weren't even very close friends, just had an incredibly good working relationship.
  • The Unreveal: Several details about the expedition members in Annihilation are revealed during Authority and Acceptance, including their names. However, the biologist's name is never revealed, and even her clone rejects her entirely and demands to be called Ghost Bird.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In Annihilation, the biologist turns out to be not entirely reliable as she withholds some information from her journal at first, like how far the brightness has already progressed within her. She claims that she does so to not seem like a compromised source, but acknowledges that this exactly what it makes her look like.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: It is revealed that the cataclysm of Area X was caused by Henry making a tiny hole in the lens of the lighthouse, setting free what was inside.
  • Vasquez Always Dies: The surveyor is the toughest and most aggressive member of the twelfth expedition, being ex-military; however, she ends up being shot to death in a gunfight against the less intimidating, more feminine biologist.
  • The Voice: The Voice, the operator responsible for Control's mission and the one he reports to. As a joke, he imagines the Voice as some kind of talking megalodon. The Voice is revealed to be Lowry, who we see in flashbacks in Acceptance.
  • Was Once a Man:
    • There's something strangely human-like about the eyes of certain creatures in Area X. Many of them are implied to have once been expedition members before being transformed into their current states. The Crawler is what remains of the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans, with the rest taken over by the original seed of Area X.
    • More explicitly horrific examples would be the eleventh expedition's psychologist, who became the moaning thing in the reeds; and the twelfth expedition's biologist herself, who becomes a Kaiju-sized glowing leviathan covered in eyes (many of which are still human, others... not so much).
  • We Have Reserves: The Southern Reach's only plan is to just keep sending expeditions in, all under increasingly bizarre experimental conditions, in the hopes that one will eventually yield answers. It's revealed late in the first book that there have been way more than 12 expeditions, and literally none of them have come back alive and unchanged. We find out in Authority that this is primarily Lowry's doing.
  • Withholding Their Name: Expedition members are explicitly forbidden from telling each other their names. None of the characters in Annihilation are named, referring to each other only by their job titles: the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. While some of their names are eventually given over the course of the next two novels, the biologist refuses to ever give her real name, with her Area X-born duplicate insisting that she be called by the nickname "Ghost Bird".
  • Wham Episode:
    • The conversation between the biologist and the dying psychologist in Annihilation recontextualizes a large portion of the book and deepens every mystery, including everything about the Southern Reach and Area X.
    • Authority has the most dramatic plot shift of the whole series, completely shattering the status quo and making the situation extremely critical. After almost two books of being relatively inert, Area X makes its move, sending the psychologist's clone into the Southern Reach. She brings with her the expansion of Area X, taking down the Southern Reach in a single stroke and propagating from all the points in which the clones emerged.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Control has to abandon his cat Chorry at the end of Authority, and it's never mentioned what became of the animal (although Control conjectures he is happily hunting rats). We never get to learn what happened to Whitby's pet mouse, either, although it can be inferred from his reaction to seeing it that it is the dead mouse found in the locked drawer of the director's desk with the plant and cell phone.
    • It's never mentioned what happens to Whitby, Lowry, Jackie Severance, Central, or the rest of the Earth and the human population for that matter, though it's implied to not be very good.
    • In Acceptance, it's also left unclear as to whether or not Charlie was able to escape the formation of Area X.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: While the series takes place in the United States, we never get firm details on where Area X, or for that matter anywhere else, is located. Its swampy climate and location on the coast would seem to suggest that it's somewhere in the South, along the Gulf of Mexico, but this is never confirmed.
  • Word-Salad Horror:
    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 gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. [...]
    • In one of the video logs of a previous expedition, the conversations between members gradually lose all meaning, until they're speaking nonsense to each other.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Time passes faster inside Area X, first hinted at by the speed at which nature reclaimed the human structures in the area. This is finally confirmed in Acceptance, with a character who spent a great deal of time inside of Area X in the time between Authority and Acceptance.

Alternative Title(s): Acceptance, Area X, Authority, Annihilation 2014


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