Acceptance is not the book you expect. If you enjoyed the first two volumes in Jeff VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy as much as I did, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about the final chapter. Perhaps you made a mental list of revelations you expect it to deliver.
Throw away that list and forget all those expectations. ReadingAcceptance after the first two Southern Reach books is akin to the grand finale of a fireworks show, but instead of bigger fireworks, you get the coda to Beethoven’s Fifth.
As mankind stumbles further into the twenty-first century, we’re destined for more frequent encounters with the unknown. Whether it’s the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or new forms of life we didn’t think were possible, our understanding of nature is expanding at an unprecedented rate.
But how much are we really capable of understanding? What is the ceiling of the scientific method? How trapped are we in our own minds and bodies?
What else is out there? And what else is already here?
That’s what Acceptance is about: the limitations of human perception in a universe full of unknowables. After the breathless adventure of Annihilationand the claustrophobic chills of Authority, the third and final volume in the Southern Reach trilogy is a New Weird epic, a speculative tour de force that defies classification. Seamlessly spanning multiple decades and points of view, VanderMeer wrings the last secrets out of Area X in a series of shockingly beautiful twists and turns.
So, here are a few aspects of the novel that writers can learn from. I will also have a brief piece on the entire trilogy published in the next issue of the Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. Be forewarned that there are potential spoilers below if you haven’t finished the trilogy.
Stay Concrete, Except for When You Shouldn’t
Writing students are often urged to stay “concrete” and “low on the ladder of abstraction” in their prose, particularly when it comes to the visual detail responsible for establishing scene, setting, and tone. For the most part, this is good advice, and VanderMeer’s lush descriptions of marshes and salt flats and birds—taken from real-life hikes on the Gulf Coast—demonstrate the power of immersive, hyper-specific details.
But should everything in your fiction be so concrete? Particularly if you’re writing speculative fiction, which dabbles in the unknown and the never-before-seen?
There is a method of stargazing called averted vision, used to spot celestial objects too faint for direct eyesight. The literary technique VanderMeer uses when his characters encounter the unknowable is similar. Take this passage from Acceptance, where Ghost Bird watches something massive approach:
The hillside come alive and sliding down to the ruined lighthouse, at a steady pace like a lava flow. This intrusion. These darknesses that re-formed into a mighty shape against the darkness of the night sky, lightened by the reflections of clouds and the greater shadow of the tree line and the forests.
Note that VanderMeer chooses not to provide a concrete description—not here and not in the pages that follow—and that the…being…is all the more real and interesting because of its slippery nature. Of course, the slippery nature of perception is one of the trilogy’s primary themes, and a common thread in speculative fiction, but it’s also the conceptual bedrock underlying good fiction of all stripes, as illuminated by Robert Boswell in The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.
Challenge Your First Thoughts and Instincts
All of VanderMeer’s work is surprising in one way or another, but perhaps none more so than Acceptance. Several episodes in particular are just…mind-blowing, but I wouldn’t dare mention them here.
John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, along with many other how-to guides, extols the importance of surprising readers and audiences in ways that feel inevitable. I’m not Jeff VanderMeer, so I can’t say this for certain, but I doubt all the twists and turns of Acceptance’s plot were “part of the plan” from the time he first began thinking about the story.
There is value in outlining a story before you start writing, in building a road map or a blueprint—no matter how skeletal—to help you find a way through 50-100,000 words. But there is also value in challenging your first ideas.
Having read so many stories, your writerly brain will often instinctively know what happens next, at least by “industry standards”. But sometimes you should ignore those first, instincts. Sometimes you should look for new roads to take. Make an outline, sure, but give yourself the freedom to improvise while you’re writing, to play jazz, to take the story somewhere completely different than you thought possible. That’s how you surprise readers: by surprising yourself.
Get Off Your Ass
VanderMeer couldn’t have written this trilogy from the comfort of his own home. Not without taking long hikes in the Florida wilderness and working some really weird day-jobs.
Sure, the discipline to sit at your desk and write for hundreds of hours is pivotal, and probably the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most. But you know what else is pivotal? Going for walks in the woods. Talking to bizarre people who hang out in bowling alleys. Exploring that random small town a few miles down the road. Reading newspapers and watching science documentaries. And definitely working a few soul-crushing jobs.
To write something interesting, you need to collect interesting material. To borrow one of VanderMeer’s terms, messy real-life experiences provide the “mulch” your fiction needs to blossom.
— — —
I can’t believe the Southern Reach trilogy is over. Word is we’ll see a short story set in the same fictional universe one day, so that’s promising. Did I want more “resolution” at the end of the day? Of course I did. But the books are about that desire to know. It’s what makes us human, and what ultimately fails us.
UPDATE: Another bit of writerly advice from VanderMeer himself, in response: