Like some of the finest examples of the science fiction and fantasy genres, these novels engage directly with the idea of ‘the Other’ and ask what happens when humanity just cannot comprehend the alien.
If a novel is the story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, science fiction and fantasy novels push the meaning of “extraordinary circumstances” to their limit. Of all writing, this genre, unconstrained by the classic constraints of reality or by the need to cater to the reader’s suspension of disbelief, can be the most ambitious (it is also one of the reasons why some of it can be so bad). At its most successful, the sci-fi genre has created products such as the Star Wars and Star Trek series, and movies from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Avatar, that have immense cross-genre appeal. This is because they are straight out commentary, or meditations, on very basic ideas of human nature – as much philosophy or even theology as anything else.
Of course the stories that are available on film are often the simplest, least complicated parts of the genre. The cult classics, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series and Frank Herbert’s Dune, have only been filmed very badly. New Weird fiction, such as China Miéville’s phenomenally creative Perdido Street Station or Embassytown defies easy adaptation, although his wonderfully subtle The City and the City has been made into a play and is supposed to be adapted into a movie. Being a fan, I will see it, and no doubt, I will regret it.
I offer this rather long introduction to help those unfamiliar with the genre to try to see where Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderfully arcane Southern Reach trilogy is coming from. Where he takes the genre in the course of these three spare, intense and claustrophobic novels is another question altogether. The books came out over a series of months in 2014, titled Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, and are best read together. Frankly, they are so absorbing that if you do manage to finish the first, it would be impossible to stop there. I read them compulsively, over a matter of days, unable to disengage with the reality that VanderMeer had created.
The books are set in the US, in an unidentified area that could be southern Florida, off the coast. The temperature is hot and humid, the flora is semi-tropical. There are bayous and the speech is a form of patois. The inhabitants are a curious set of characters, people as happy to be lost from the “world out there” as anything else – some of them, one key character in particular, escaping a complicated past. In this area, something occurred thirty years ago. The government has cordoned off the area, and explained it away as (yet another) environmental catastrophe, something like a Chernobyl disaster in minor. As nobody much cares for the area, or the people living there, Area X, so designated, comes up nowhere except in small references to the expeditions that the agency monitoring it – the Southern Reach – sends into the field.
It is here that the first book, Annihilation begins. It is told from the view of “the biologist”. Her name is never revealed. She is simply her function. This is supposed to be part of the strategy of the Southern Reach, to keep expedition members somehow safe, sheltered, by using dry terms. By this time it is already very clear that whatever has happened beyond the border that separates Area X from the rest of the world, it is dangerous – or dangerous only to a probing humanity. The biologist is going on this expedition partially because her husband went on the previous one, and returned unexpectedly back in their home, glazed, only partially responding. Then, after he was taken away by the authorities, he died of cancer within months – just like his other expedition members that have returned, only partly themselves, inexplicably in places they should not have been.
It is impossible to know what is happening. The land of Area X seems to have returned to a state of nature. It teems with wildlife, only the buildings and works of humanity have been wiped out. The biologist has a peculiar reaction to this and in a sense it shows how her function – and now her name – distance her from the human tribe as well.
The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there, I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.
VanderMeer’s attention to detail and his vivid description of the biology of the area is mesmerising, and then it becomes something else, as the team – the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and our biologist narrator (all women, by the way) – encounter an anomaly. The biologist insists on calling it a tower, although it is a column embedded into the ground, with a spiral staircase descending down. It seems to be made of stone, initially, except that this is only because of a hypnotic suggestion that the team is under. The “tower” is something else, biological, breathing, and upon its walls is script, written in phosphorescent fungus that reads,
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives…
The words do not end there. The sentences, nonsense-hypnotic, weighed down by some dread, continue on and on. Unsurprisingly, the book ends with death and disaster, and an odd sort of freedom, maybe a rebirth.
The second book, Authority, begins after the expedition. The biologist, or maybe a form of her, has returned, like her husband had before. Except she does not have cancer and is far more responsive. But she does not think she is the biologist and prefers to be called “ghost bird”, a nickname the biologist’s husband had given her. This book, though, is not told from her perspective, but that of John Rodriguez, who has his own nickname, “Control”. A spy, and the son of a spy, he is sent by Central to be the new director of Southern Reach, to find out what went wrong, what happened to the last expedition. Except that Control is hardly in power. This posting might be a last chance to rescue a damaged career, his supervisor in Central is nameless, some person that Control imagines as a weird marine animal, a mutated whale-like creature, abusive and impatient over the phone. At the Southern Reach itself, Control finds a bureaucratic hell, a deputy director still loyal to the last director and something twisted within the organisation itself.
Behind a door, on the wall, Control finds the words, “Where lies the strangling fruit…”, in his desk drawer he finds a plant that does not die and a scabrous cellphone that he cannot rid himself of. Beleaguered, battered from all sides, he ends up empathising with the person he is supposed to be interrogating, sorry, “debriefing”, the biologist who has returned, Ghost Bird.
The last book, Acceptance, is a return to Area X, but also a return to the history of Area X, to the history of the hypnotic words, their writer and the lighthouse where the expeditions end. This is the only piece of human creation that remains in Area X, as if, faced with a visitor that they cannot control, corral, or even comprehend, the only thing that humanity can maintain is a lookout from a tower whose inhabitant has disappeared, or been transformed. On the far side, in the area beyond the border, and in the offices of the Southern Reach, it becomes increasingly clear that the border was not maintained by any human agency, and the idea of approaching, or examining, whatever was happening within Area X was an act of hubris.
Sci-fi allows us to engage most directly with the idea of “the Other”, the alien made flesh. At the heart of most sci-fi is the belief that, in the end, the alien can be understood, and operates on terms of knowledge that we can deal with, investigate or counter. Even where the creature, being or entity is godlike, like the creators of the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey, or evil and powerful, such as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, they can be understood on those terms. VanderMeer asks the intriguing question about what happens when that fails? How do we deal with an alien we just cannot understand, whose capabilities are beyond us as much as our capabilities are beyond that of a rabbit in a cage? The outcome is profoundly disturbing and a treatise that plays on your mind long after you have finished reading it.
Oh, and Paramount Pictures has acquired rights to make the film. Natalie Portman has, reportedly, been cast. I assure you, the film will be terrible. Sadly, I might still watch it.