Haunting, mesmerizing, moving: these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think about Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. Each novel is under 400 pages, and each packs into it so much psychological, emotional, philosophical, and ecological inquiry that you start to think that they must be huge, hulking volumes that should make your bookshelves cave in.
Now, you’ve probably seen a million reviews of this trilogy, and rightly so, for it deserves recognition and invites fascinating discussions. Therefore, instead of recapping the story or outlining the plot, I’m going to focus on three major mysteries/questions/problems in these novels and why they’re so compelling.
Oh, and by the way, there may be spoilers here. I’m not guaranteeing anything.
What is Area X? Of course, this is the BIG one. In Annihilation and Authority, we’re asked to imagine an area of the south west coast enclosed in some sort of invisible wall, kind of like the dome in Stephen King’s recent novel, but without the tangible dome. Apparently, when “Area X” came into being, anything within its confines “disappeared,” and humans outside of it could only enter through a specially-marked door (if they wanted to survive the crossing). By Acceptance, however, VanderMeer invites us to imagine Area X as potentially so many other things: a wormhole, terrain on another planet, another dimension, etc. The characters start talking about “Earth” and unfamiliar stars, as if an alien presence plucks whoever enters this transformed/cleansed landscape and transports them to a copy of the original land for…some unknown purpose. At one point, Grace (the director’s second-in-command) suggests that Control “[t]hink of something more subtle, something peering through what we think of as reality.”
And this raises the question of “doubling” that runs through all of the books. The living words in the “tower” are both language and more than language- an organic kind of communication, which ultimately transforms the Biologist and creates her clone (?), so that the Biologist and Ghost Bird exist simultaneously. We also see doubling in the directors- one who grew up in the area before it was transformed, and the other raised in an atmosphere of secrecy but perpetually kept out of the loop when it comes to the Southern Reach. They are each looking for answers for different reasons, and their acceptance of the “director” title is ironic, since they wish to find out more about the nature of the transformation to satisfy their own curiosity.
So is Area X a clone of the original coastal area? Is it like a holodeck image, an exact replica on the surface, but harboring its own specific life-forms and history/computer program? Is it a “control” area in which aliens can study the humans that interact with it? Or is it, in fact, an eruption of forces within the Earth itself, reclaiming land that has been eroded and degraded by human contact?
No names, no technology: Why must those entering Area X discard their names and assume titles (Biologist, Director, Linguist)? Why can’t they use up-to-date technology? Apparently, the earliest expeditions brought in video recorders and cell phones, but they, like the humans who brought them, were transformed/infiltrated in unknown ways (at one point, a cell phone may or may not skitter across the Director’s kitchen floor). It’s as if Area X (or its directing consciousness) wants to keep itself pristine, even with the addition of humans, by stripping those humans of their pasts, where names play a major part. A name is a link to a family, a tradition, a cultural heritage. With only a title, one is reduced to a function and thus made more physical- able to let go of the “real world” and become immersed in/transformed by the plants, animals, and fish around them. When the expeditions’ members are forced to record their journeys through Area X in notebooks, they are necessarily made to imitate the actions of the Crawler, writing in its own unique way on the walls of the “tower.” Writing thus becomes one of the most physical, important acts in the trilogy, which leads me to…
Communication: Ultimately, this trilogy is a meditation on the narrowness of human sensory perception and communication. As VanderMeer himself said in a recent interview with Electric Literature:
There are latticeworks and cathedrals of conversation that we’re unable to “hear.” We have fairly primitive sensory data coming in on all of this, and this means we misunderstand our environment from the moment we’re born. If we sometimes feel a prickle on the edge of our senses it may be that some part of our reptile brain is experiencing a ghost of an echo of the complexity that truly surrounds us.
Ghost Bird admits to herself halfway through Acceptance that “human beings couldn’t even put themselves in the mind of a cormorant or an owl or a whale or a bumblebee.” And this is what I find so compelling about VanderMeer’s tale: that it’s an attempt to imagine an alien being or intelligence that we can never recognize or communicate with. I can only think of a few instances in scifi books, tv shows, or movies, in which the Other is presented as almost completely unknowable. But that’s only natural, for how can we know what we can’t know? Isn’t the unknowable precisely that?
Control, just as he becomes wholly transformed by Area X, imagines that “…nothing about language, about communication, could bridge the divide between human beings and Area X….anything approaching a similarity would be some subset of Area X functioning at its most primitive level. A blade of grass. A blue heron. A velvet ant.” We humans see these objects, but are they seeing us? Are they watching us? This is like the “male-gaze” debate in literature and the arts, only now it’s Nature’s gaze that we must become more aware of. We walk around with our own individual purposes, but doesn’t the landscape that we walk through have its own purpose? And what about when those purposes come into conflict? As we know from the many recent dystopian novels, tv shows, and films, humans can build as many houses and highways as they like; but when the humans are gone, the land reclaims itself, breaking down all traces of human existence slowly, very slowly.
VanderMeer has made me think more deeply about these questions and become more aware of myself as an organism in a complex ecosystem. And it is precisely because of all of these questions that VanderMeer raises that I recommend reading this trilogy from first page to last. And then doing it all over again.