the Little Red Reviewer

Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

Posted on: May 28, 2017

Acceptance (Southern Reach #3) by Jeff Vandermeer

published in 2014

where I got it: purchased new




The Southern Reach series came out in 2014, and I didn’t even need to wait for the series to be completed as all three books were published in the same calendar year.  So what the hell took me so long to finish reading it? None of these books are very long, and I wouldn’t describe any of them as difficult reads. So what gives?   A couple of things.


  • I didn’t want the series to be over
  • After reading the 2nd book in the series, Authority, I was a little intimidated to continue. Ok, A lot intimidated, because I really struggled with Authority.  (Which has led to me being a little intimidated to read Vandermeer’s newest book, Borne, which yes, I know is completely silly.)


Why did Authority intimidate me? I talked a good talk when I reviewed that book, but I struggled to read it and I had no idea what was going on.  Jeez, now I know how Control felt.  He’s been hired to do a job, and walks into this Kafka-esque tapestry of the WTFery that he’s supposed to summarize in reports to his superiors.  He can’t look like a fool to his employers, of course. Even worse, this is a government research agency.  If this is anything like actual R & D, the paychecks stop if you don’t produce results. Any kind of results. As an employee of the South Reach agency you’ve got to justify your existence, right?


So anyway, the mistake that I made was reading Authority as a standalone.  What finally worked for me was to binge read all three books, literally picking up the next book 10 minutes after finishing the previous one.  Authority and Acceptance worked very well when I read them as one longer novel.  I highly suggest reading these 3 books as one long novel to anyone who is interested in this series.


After all of that rambling, let’s talk about Acceptance, yes?  Sure.  But there are going to be spoilers for the entire series from this point forward.  And more rambling.

Something I connected with in this series is the parallels between people who are looking for someone or something in the different books. The Biologist is looking for her husband. She knows she can’t salvage their relationship, but she’d still like to spend time with him.  Control spends some time looking for Ghost Bird, for similar reasons – he knows he can’t salvage his relationship with her, but maybe they can become friends or at least allies?  And then there is director. She’s looking for something too, but I won’t tell you what.  And then there is the whole thing with Whitby. I suddenly feel really bad for Whitby.


The narrative in Acceptance jumps all over the place, following a ton of plot threads in different times such as the Director’s childhood, the lighthouse keeper’s experiences with the S&SB, Control and Ghost Bird’s story, the psychologist’s point of view of the 12th expedition, etc. I loved getting to see everyone’s different points of view, and getting all the flashbacks, but it was a lot to keep track of, especially after the much narrower focus of the previous books. In Authority, Control is mostly a deer in headlights, so it was especially nice to get to spend more time with him and get to know his character a little bit more. Some readers are going to be turned off and frustrated by the seemingly random presentation of different people’s stories and the different time lines, others will try to find meaning in the order in which everything is presented.


Because Acceptance isn’t told in chronological order, there is very neat sort of doubling going on when you compare the earlier books to this final one.  You can look back at conversations that took place in the earlier books and see multiple meanings for what people were saying. All those conversations between Control and Whitby? Whitby was trying to tell him something the entire time, and Control took everything out of context because he didn’t get have any context.  Context seems to be super important here.


And I feel like I am still missing some context. Like there is some huge question that was answered and the answer just went right over my head.  Area X is described as a pristine wilderness – no pollution, no litter, no chemicals, no plastics in the ground. It’s perfectly clean, as if humans were never even there.  But Area X can do grotesque things to human beings. Is there an answer in that that I’m missing?  What’s it going to cost me to accept that I may never understand this?


The Biologist was always the closest to the answer, and she never even realized it. Remember her fascination with tide pools?  Where is the border of a tide pool? Is that boundary important to the critters in the tide pool? As the sea water slooshes into and then out of the tide pool, where does the tide pool stop and the ocean begin?  That is the closest thing I can get to regarding the border of Area X. Am I answering the question this story is proposing? I have absolutely no idea. But maybe I’ve answered why the Biologist seems to unperturbed about what is happening.


The Southern Reach isn’t a series for readers who like answers, for readers who want everything wrapped up nice and neat at the end.  The small questions are answered.  The big ones, not so much. The experiment I’d like to try is to follow the non-chronological pattern of Acceptance – because I believe I’ll find the answers that will work for me in the past.  I know the big questions will never be answered, that’s point. But the little questions? I bet if I read the books in backwards order, I’ll find the little answers.


The Southern Reach trilogy is an interesting little inadvertent thought experiment.  What depth of answers do readers need?  We may say “oh, I don’t need everything wrapped up at the end, I’m ok with ambiguous endings!”. This series will really test that.


But, good news.  Now that I’ve gotten through Acceptance I am no longer intimidated to read Borne.







4 Responses to "Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer"

Had the same response. Been putting off Borne since it came out. Curious see how the movie will turn out. Being directed by the same guy who did Ex Machina.

Liked by 1 person

You reminded me that I need to read this third and final book!! I didn’t know what to expect and I feel I might like it from what you said here!


Here’s how I did it–accidentally, but it worked. I first read Annihilation and appreciated all its parts but didn’t love it, my lack of enthusiasm making it hard to finish it. Then, a year or so after Acceptance came out, I decided on a whim to read Authority… and I absolutely loved it. Then I read Acceptance and thought it was so-so as a standalone, but worked well in the context of the trilogy. Finally, I re-read Annihilation and finally got how brilliant it is. Did it make a few things a little clearer? Probably, though it’s been almost two years now so I don’t remember very well. But man did I love it. I think the reason why I loved Authority and my re-read of Annihilation so much was that I’d stopped assuming I’d get big answers–which allowed me to relax and enjoy the weirdness.

And if you think about it–Area X is, to humans, hostile at worst and uncaring at best, so it’s hard to even conceive who or what would be able to explain stuff to us, squishy human readers.

I don’t know if you’ve come across this, but Jeff Vandermeer wrote a long-ish piece for the Atlantic detailing his writing process for the entire trilogy–he seems to find ridiculously easy to transform anything that happens to him in a piece of story:

Also–despite all this, I still find Borne intimidating!


[…] Reach Trilogy – the books ”Annihilation”, ”Authority” and ”Acceptance”. The film will be…ehm… ”released” on […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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