Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation
Late one night, staying up long after I meant to, I caught fragments of an episode of the Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, the undying (not to say interminable, but…) British science fiction series. Between the extreme close-ups of Capaldi’s topographically dazzling mug, a little streamlet of a story ran something like this: a gigantic magical forest completely overwhelmed the world. Though at first believing them to be malicious, our Doctor of dubious professional credentials intuits that they are actually attempting to act as a sandbag, cushioning the earth from a cosmic disaster. More than that, I could not grasp.
Forests marching back to reclaim their old territories have been a recurring symbol in literature and art for centuries. Everyone who knows anything about MacBeth would remember that one of the final gambits in the power struggle against the titular tyrant involves an army masquerading as a moving forest. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, aligning with the novel by the oddly Shakespeare-hating J.R.R. Tolkien, depicts a race of tree-people, the ents, savaging an industrial fortress. Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, which has perhaps the closest analogue to Annihilation’s setting that I can recall, places its heroine in a world where the non-human natural world has internalized the toxins dumped into it by humanity and colonized the world with a toxic vastness fatal to human beings.
Even Nausicäa’s toxic jungles, though, conceal within themselves a vaulted cathedral of purity beneath their toxic exterior. They exude poisons into the atmosphere, but as part of a process of self-purification, revealing an essentially beautiful core. Toxic jungles are uncanny ecosystems but are ultimately a part of Earth’s self-regulating impulses, a process belonging to Equilibrium rather than chaos.
Area X in Annihilation is all the more unsettling because, at least in this first volume of the trilogy, the ecosystem complex that comprises this negative zone beyond human control shows no signs of benevolence or even comprehensibility. A hole, ultimately: in human knowledge, in the maps, in the psyche, exposing or, perhaps, absorbing and exhaling, all the chaos unleashed by industrialization in a more unbounded form. And into such a place walks a troupe of experts.
These experts, all women, form the human component of Annihilation. Vandermeer hitches his narrative to one woman in particular, the unnamed Biologist. Coming into Area X following her late husband, entranced by the mystery of this cryptic Eden, her arc in the story consists of her encounter with the biosphere in Area X and the resulting transformation. What’s remarkable about the book, though, is that it refuses to personalize this change to the extent one usually sees in fantasy. Cronenbergian body horror, in its default mode, usually involves the intrusion of something alien into a normalized white settler body: a fly, a virus, cybernetics, an otherworldly love of money. What Vandermeer does is destabilize the entire natural world, bringing his human beings into a process of becoming something other than human. And yet, they are not growing more alienated from the world around them, as frequently happens in Cronenberg. Their abjection from human society is accompanied by their blending further and further into Area X itself.
Comparisons could also be made to the genre of alien invasion/body snatching, but on a personal note I find the latter so remote and abstract that I have difficulty recognizing the horror in them. Whereas the threat from an encroaching and indifferent nature, something coming––at least potentially––from within the earth, is a primal fear I have no difficulty appreciating. So we have a dialectical movement from outside to inside: the environment permeates the person, making it part of an environment. At what point, in her story, is the Biologist no longer human? Aren’t human beings already host to all kinds of extra-human organisms?
Vandermeer’s execution of these ideas, as difficult as they are, is nothing short of astonishing. I was physically and mentally shaken for a few hours after finishing the book in a large gulp of a sultry afternoon. Surrounded by gardens, little growing beings we shove into boxes, we scarcely comprehend the struggles involved in such a practice. And the formal grasp that Vandermeer demonstrates makes all of the above far more comprehensible and involving than the linear sketch I presented above. Annihilation is a book about the pitfalls of science and knowledge, the hollowness of what we know and the terror that an indifferent but living intelligence brings to us. I have great anticipation for the second and third volumes, luckily not having to wait long.