After their high-risk expedition disintegrates, it’s every scientist for herself in this wonderfully creepy blend of horror and science fiction. This is the first volume of the Southern Reach trilogy from VanderMeer (Finch, 2009, etc.); subsequent volumes are scheduled for publication in June and September 2014.
The Southern Reach is the secret government agency that dispatches expeditions across the border to monitor Area X, an ominous coastal no man’s land since an unspecified event 30 years before. This latest expedition, the 12th, is all-female, consisting of a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a biologist (the narrator). Names are taboo. Their leader, the psychologist, has hypnotic powers. They have no communication devices, but they do have firearms, which they will use; some earlier expeditions also ended bloodily. Close to base camp is "the tower," a mostly underground structure that acts as tunnel, which they descend. On its walls are grim biblical admonitions, raised letters made of fungi. The biologist incautiously inhales tiny spores which, she will discover later, fill her with brightness, a form of ESP. Tension between the women increases when the anthropologist goes missing; they will discover her dead in the tower, discharging green ash. Next, the psychologist disappears. Leaving the hostile, ex-military surveyor behind, the biologist makes her way to the other interesting structure, the lighthouse, which she climbs in dread. VanderMeer is an expert fearmonger, but his strongest suit, what makes his novel a standout, is his depiction of the biologist. Like any scientist, she has an overriding need to classify, to know. This has been her lifelong passion. Her solitary explorations created problems in her marriage; her husband, a medic, returned from the previous expedition a zombie. What killed the anthropologist? The biologist’s samples reveal human brain tissue. Some organism is trying to colonize and absorb the humans with whom it comes in contact. Experiencing “the severe temptation of the unknown,” she must re-enter the tower to confront the Crawler, her name for the graffiti writer.
Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.