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November 18, 2014

Book Notes - Jeff VanderMeer "Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy"

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy collects Jeff VanderMeer's impressive science fiction series in one hardback edition.

Karen Joy Fowler wrote of the books at BookPage:

"Unsettling and un-put-downable like an old-fashioned adventure story, only weirder, beautifully written and not at all old-fashioned.""

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Jeff VanderMeer's Book Notes music playlist for his novels Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy:

I wrote a guest post for Largehearted Boy back in February, exploring some of the musical influences on my Southern Reach trilogy. The Southern Reach trilogy chronicles the thirty-year quest by a secret agency called the Southern Reach to explore the mystery behind Area X, a strange pristine wilderness. Some event has closed Area X off from the rest of the world and increasingly desperate expeditions are sent in to try to find some solution before it spreads.

At the time I wrote the last post, the musical influences were two-directional: songs I listened to while writing the trilogy and songs I thought evoked some of the atmosphere of the trilogy. I even expanded on some choices here, for Eric J. Lawrence's Guest DJ show on KCRW.

Since publication and the international success of the trilogy there's been a third direction: People creating their own soundtracks for the novels. The usual focus is on songs that emphasize either the situations of the main characters or certain science-fiction or ecological themes. The Polish publisher even had a noted Polish DJ create a mix, which you can listen to here.

My friend Ashley Rogers posted a track listing and Benni the Blog did as well. I've now spent an afternoon listening to both soundtracks and like a fair amount of all of it music, in the sense that it does evoke different moods from the trilogy. Some of the songs might not be ones I'd listen to while writing, but that's a different context than reading the books. There's also a true subjectivity to reading the Southern Reach, I've found. There's an imaginative space carved out for readers that leads to different interpretations, and it's interesting how the playlists kind of reflect that shifting perspective.

Anyway, I thought I'd pick out some tracks that stuck out in my mind from both playlists.

An Unofficial Southern Reach Trilogy Soundtrack (Benni the Blog)

"Neutered Fruit" by St. Vincent – This is an interesting case of the lyrics seeming to support Annihilation, in a curling vine type of way while some of the music's electronic nature seems a little too upbeat.

"…but Now Things Were Different" by Library Tapes – I'm a sucker for incidental bird song at the beginning or end of a track. With the heavy wall of synth coming along behind the bird sounds, the sense of dread is appropriate and almost overwhelming—I felt like the border of Area X was locking into place. Haunted piano coming in over top of that with an unsettling other instrument providing reverberation? I was both a little freaked out and loving it. Not many tracks make me physically uneasy, but this one managed the trick. A great Southern Reach track. I could see this being the last song ever played on the waterlogged piano in the village bar in Acceptance.

"Space & Times" by The Pierces – Wow. This could be the whiskey-drenched voice of the former director driving to the bowling alley in Acceptance. This could be the track playing while she's hanging out in the Star Lounge in the back or a refrain running through her head as she crosses the border with Whitby—or could fit a hundred other scenes or circumstances. The lead singer has such a strong voice and the clarity of the instruments behind it—nice recording job. "If I knew then what I know now." Yep, perfect.

"Yfirbord" by Sigur Ros – I like Sigur Ros a lot, but I find I can't write to them because they subvert my brain so it's less like a soundtrack for what I'm working on and more that I'm becoming part of their story. That's a good thing, but means they rarely show up on my lists. "Yfirbord" has the kind of orchestral gloom-power that conveys a sense of deep hiking and of Area X as a physical presence, and then opens up into a kind of autumnal beauty. The voice struggling to speak before the song like a failed yet repeated attempt to communicate. Then the song just kind of goes into outer space, complete with an explosion like a rocket launch. Again, perfect.

"Night Kills Day" by Ghostbird – It gives me so much delight to discover that there is a band named Ghostbird, given there's a character by that name in the novels! The song itself is a little traditional in its chord progressions but I like the lead singer's voice and some of the changes in the music along the way. The lyrics are interesting too.

"Sea Swallow Me" by Cocteau Twins – I don't know why the Cocteau Twins seem playful to me much of the time, but they do, and this song has a lovely beat to it as well. There's an ethereal otherworldly quality to the music but enough of an edge to the signing so it doesn't all just float away into some hole in the sky.

Southern Reach Fan Mix (Ashley Rogers)

"Coast" by Devin Townsend – Lovely sinister opening followed by a pulsing beat and lyrics sung in a drawn-out way that fits the music, along with some adroit guitar work. "Come to the coast and I will find you." It's very evocative and fitting, with really interesting changes in the music, and Townsend uses his voice well to open up the song as it progresses, too. Near the end, the crescendo "Coast" builds to flirts with being cheesy, but largely succeeds in a tightrope walk between dramatic and bombastic.

"Harvest" by Opeth – Jangly folk rock to open that pleases me by not seeming derivative, and then a big odd echoing clarity to the music that pleases me even more. A seeking, questing sound that works quite well for the Southern Reach trilogy.

"A Natural Disaster" by Anathema – Great, simple opening that, again, leaves space for the listener's imagination, and then that great spiraling voice like an instrument itself: the slow-burn of late nights and desperate decisions conveyed beautifully by the way the music then comes to the fore in volume and intensity, to match the voice. "Can't change what happened." Really passionate, heart-felt music, and perfect for Acceptance in particular. (I also like their "Balance," on the track list, but I think "A Natural Disaster" is more unusual.)

"Passenger" by the Deftones – Great urgency and driving beat. In terms of the context of the novels, this could even be Authority with Control trapped with too many files to go through or the biologist fleeing the moaning beast after the disastrous episode at the lighthouse in Annihilation. There's an almost metal thing going on here that I somehow didn't associate with the Deftones. Like metal mixed with Bright Eyes. I could be wrong. Certainly enough angst to power some of the Southern Reach trilogy and enough mysterious so you can see Area X peering in around the edges. Their "Change (In the House of Flies)," also on the track listing is another satisfying track – "I watched you change" – with full-on demolition on display in the pyrotechnics of the music.

Jeff VanderMeer and Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Finch
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Third Bear
PopMatters interview with the author
Suvudu interview with the author interview with the author
Work in Progress interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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