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Book Review: Eco-Anxiety, Sci Fi Thrills and Cosmic Horror in Area X

Annhilation Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

In medicine, fungi pose a more complicated threat than most viruses or bacteria. They are more closely related, more similar to us and our cells. Attempting to kill invasive fungi also means we risk poisoning ourselves. Fungi humble our eradication efforts — intractable, like a nuisance toe nail discolorationf; horrifying and deadly, like Candida that has breached a catheter insertion site into the blood. It is a reminder that sterility is an illusion, that even within the crisp lines of the hospital, we are not protected from the agents of decay.

Annhilation is the first of three in the Southern Reach trilogy, published in 2014, that manages to combine the out-there-horror of the dark woods and a sort of ecological body horror that taps into whatever part of my psyche reacts when I see spores on an agar plate. A short novel with the runtime of 6 hours on audio, it is a sparse and austere fiction drawing elements from science fiction, horror, government conspiracy, and survival thriller. The narrator is nameless, a recalcitrant Biologist, sent in with 3 other nameless experts, in the twelfth expedition into Area X. The region is ostensibly the site of a vague ecological disaster occurring many decades earlier, investigated by an equally vague clandestine government agency, The Southern Reach

The novel manages to be both claustrophobic — a cat-and-mouse slasher tale — while also being vertiginously expansive — the existential dread of cosmic horror. I mean to convey these unpleasant sensations as entertaining and sublime. The combination is within an esteemed sci fi thriller, in the tradition of films like Alien or Event Horizon. But in contrast to the empty expanses of space, we are on Earth itself, where the thrills and terrors unfold disconcertingly alongside songbirds, wildflowers, and picturesque lighthouses on remote coastlines. Area X is also reminiscent of Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky, a classic proto-cyberpunk Soviet-era novel about a similarly anomalous and hauntingly apocalyptic stretch of land. Area X however, is also beautiful. The apocalypse hovers between threat and certainty.

Annhilation has danger flanking on two fronts: in the mysterious landscape, filled with monsters, and also the expedition party itself. It is a story of both man vs. nature and man vs. man. The 12th expedition is in fact all women — the Biologist; the Surveyor, with military training; the Anthropologist, more nervous; and the Psychologist, the terse leader. We are spared the physical description that sometimes plague women characters, especially in genre fiction. We know only the group is highly trained in survival, experts in their science, physically capable, and wary of each other. The minimalist sketches of characters aid the game-manship of survival and rings consistent with the narrator’s general emotional disinterest in other people.

The bulk of description is dedicated to the land itself, its mapping, geometry, terrain, the textures of moss, and haunting sounds from the reeds. Plot parameters are succinctly outlined — the limitation of the technology at hand, the layout — though the description, premises and narrator herself sometimes waver, become unreliable. “The map had been the first form of misdirection,” the Biologist writes, “for what is a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?”

In that way Area X itself emerges as more than setting, as instead another living, breathing, elusive character. The biologist affords us her expertise in assessing the landscape — transitional ecologies, the growth cycles of lichen, microscope revelations. The academic credentials undergird the true fantasticism of life on Earth that makes monsters believable. She also elicits the greatest appeal of science fiction, that sense of wonder one gets gazing at the stars, grounded in Earth and sea: “I looked not for shooting stars but for fixed ones, and I would try to imagine what kind of life lived in those celestial tidal pools so far from us.”

She also reminds us how in this natural world, rapturous beauty runs alongside the cold existential dread of voracious decay, the desperate games of survival, and the isolation that also underlies organic existence. Perhaps no one can hear you scream in space, but in the natural habitats of Earth —cacophonous with endless cries and wails — no one cares. “The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

The novel was released by the esteemed publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux and earned its author glittering accolades, including a Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, a major film adaptation starring Natalie Portman, and coronation as “King of Weird Fiction” by the New Yorker. Prior to this Vandermeer had forged a path in the speculative literary genre of the New Weird that rose in 1990s and early 2000s, that held as its Ur-text the pulp horror magazine Weird Tales, a genre that Annhilation appears to exemplify.

The Biologist, played by Natalie Portman, in the 2014 film adaptation directed by Alex Garland

The accolades are well earned, it is a smooth entertaining ride, exquisite storytelling with rare stumbles, sketching a cinematic experience that clears a path for a film adaptation The plot propels forward with expert pace that is engrossing, tense, surprising. There are glimpses of the biologist’s previous life. Building empathy for antisocial taciturn character cannot be easy, but VanderMeer achieves this smoothly, and we feel both her yearning and aversion to other humans. There is no clumsy trauma plot, but sketches of a childhood emerges, elegantly woven into believable human character. The relationship between the biologist and her husband, lost in the eleventh expedition, ring true — ambivalent, tender, erotic, full of fissures, sorrow and regret.

The novel is also love story — between the biologist and her husband, yes, but also between the biologist and her organisms, and the solace of Nature apart from the threat of other humans, even if red in tooth and claw. There can be belonging in this teeming world of persistence and survival. The novel is also about the love of knowledge and storytelling — and its limits. “I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning. I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.”

If Annhilation ended here without the rest of the trilogy, it would be complete. The novel is a microcosm fable of human life on Earth — also flanked, on one side by the merciless impending ecological horror of an Earth no longer hospitable to our descendants — and on the other, the mistrust of the fellow humans who got us here, with whom we must work to survive. “You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come,” writes the Biologist, “or concentrate on what’s left to you.”

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