OCTOBER 5, 2015
IN H.P. LOVECRAFT’S classic horror tale At the Mountains of Madness, a group of scientific researchers stumble across the ruins of an alien civilization in Antarctica. Confronted by the strangeness of a nonhuman world, the scientists fall apart as their anthropocentric perspectives are challenged. Realizing how much he doesn’t know about the universe, the narrator loses his faith in “external Nature and Nature’s laws” and forever afterward faces “a hideously amplified world of lurking horrors.” Such plotlines are typical of Lovecraft, one of the foremost contributors to the literary tradition known as “The Weird.” Whereas Golden Age science fiction emphasized scientists’ and engineers’ ability to manipulate the laws of a knowable universe, “Weird” stories played up the horror of characters’ (and readers’) encounters with the unfathomable.
In 2015, we live in a society far more comfortable with the blurring of human-nature binaries than were Lovecraft’s readers in the 1930s. From medicine’s recognition of the importance of microbiota to our health, to zoology’s awareness of animals’ capacity for emotion, we inhabit a moment at which the idea of a separation between human beings and the natural world seems quaint. Nature holds different terrors for us: climate change, chemical pollution, GMOs. We fear, not that humanity will find itself a cog in an alien system, but that we will not recognize the destructive effects of our actions until it is too late. How then might the Weird respond to the anxieties of the 21st century? Jeff VanderMeer’s hallucinatory Southern Reach trilogy provides one possible answer. In these three novels, characters wrestle with what Ursula Heise describes as a postmodern moment “where a conception of nature as the realm outside human society becomes difficult or impossible.” Human action impacts natural systems, sometimes in terrifyingly unpredictable ways, but this does not translate into power over the ecology that characters are attempting to study.
The “Southern Reach” of VanderMeer’s title is a near-future government agency “guarding a dormant secret that no one seemed to care much about anymore, given the focus on terrorism and ecological collapse.” The “secret” in question is Area X, a section of tropical coastline where something has gone hideously wrong with reality. For years, almost nobody who has entered Area X has returned alive. As the three novels — Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance — unfold, we learn that a few members of Southern Reach fear that the border of Area X is expanding. Like global climate change, this ecological development could annihilate the human race. However — again like climate change — the growth of Area X is easily ignored by governmental figures preoccupied by flashier, more imminent disasters. Secretly, some members of Southern Reach initiate changes in their program of study — and plunge themselves and their employees into catastrophe.
The first novel in the sequence, Annihilation, is a strikingly effective chiller with a classically Lovecraftian premise. This swiftly paced tale follows the members of Southern Reach’s 12th expedition as they investigate Area X. However, whereas a Lovecraftian story would exclaim in horror at a challenges to humanity’s place in the universe, Annihilation asks whether “the human” is a stable category to begin with. “I would tell you the names of the other three [members], if it mattered,” observes the biologist, the last surviving member of the expedition, “but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two.” Regarding her reluctance to share her own name, the biologist explains that, in their Southern Reach training, “we were always strongly discouraged from using names: We were meant to be focused on our purpose.”
From Annihilation’s opening pages, we are thus faced by two challenges to the humanity of our characters, neither of which yet reflect the influence of Area X. The biologist’s commitment to preserving an “objective” perspective on the deaths of her companions may strike us as inhumane. Meanwhile, the fact that her government agency wishes to reduce its employees to nameless tools hints at the Southern Reach’s dehumanizing methodology. Indeed, later in her narrative the biologist discovers that the Southern Reach has hypnotized her team to respond to certain keywords (such as “annihilation”) with actions that risk their lives. Caught between the mysterious influence of Area X and the hypnotic influence of their employers, the scientists are hardly self-possessed individuals acting independently of their environment. They are failing to live up to the ideal of “the human.”
As the Southern Reach’s use of hypnotic keywords may indicate, Annihilation, like the other novels in the trilogy, is preoccupied with the way that external environments and beings manipulate our internal selves. Language is held up to particular scrutiny. Characters are infected by words; stories are deployed as weapons; phrases derail characters’ ability to perceive objective reality. Cleverly, VanderMeer turns the text against the reader at times, alerting us to the fact that we, too, are being manipulated with language. Hypnotic keywords are reused in characters’ apparently neutral descriptions of Area X’s landscape, making the uneasy reader wonder if we too are being controlled. In a sense, we are: As readers of a novel, we have no access to “objective” views of landscapes and people being described. At one point, the biologist self-consciously draws attention to her manipulation of the reader, observing that she has withheld crucial information because she hoped that “in reading this account, you might find me a credible, objective witness.” The irony is that we do — even though the events she describes are incredible, her own relation to them is subjective, and her narrative is structured to evoke the responses she desires in us. We, like the narrator, are powerless to escape the narrative environment in which we are immersed.
Readers looking for a chilling beach read for the latter days of summer will enjoy Annihilation, the most crowd-pleasing of the Southern Reach trilogy. Authority, its immediate sequel, requires more patience. If Annihilation draws on the Lovecraftian side of the Weird literary tradition, Authority favors the Kafkaesque. Its protagonist, the ironically named “Control,” is a corporate fixer who has been sent to restructure a demoralized Southern Reach. Predictably, Control soon discovers that he is out of his depth. His employees and employers are conspiring against him, he is “losing time” in the office, and the Area X border appears to be expanding. More meandering and satirical than Annihilation’s plunge into horror, this Weird version of The Office mixes black humor with genuinely terrifying moments. For readers who may want to believe that Annihilation’s ecological horror stops at the edge of the jungle, Authority dispels such notions. Building on the dismantling of the nature-culture binary advocated by cultural critics like Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, Authority places social ecology and natural ecology side by side, suggesting that the Southern Reach’s separation of itself from the natural world was never going to work in the first place.
The third and final book in the trilogy, Acceptance, weaves together multiple timelines and character perspectives as it explains some of the events contributing to the creation of Area X. For the first time we are introduced to the perspective of Saul Evans, a gay man earning his living as a lighthouse keeper. Saul’s attempt to hold the line against the foolhardy actions of mysterious visitors to his coastline set the stage for a Stephen King-esque scene of small town disaster. While Acceptance is perhaps the most technically accomplished of the three novels, it is also the least able to stand on its own. Its emotional impacts rely heavily on events from the previous two books, and is thus best consumed as part of a Southern Reach binge read than in isolation.
All three of VanderMeer’s novels draw power from their gut-punches of vivid imagery. The surreal scenes that characters encounter — a tunnel that is also a tower, a swarm of white rabbits vanishing over an invisible border, a dolphin with a human eye — linger in the mind’s eye long after the novel’s plotlines are concluded. However, the novels also make effective use of what might be termed the ecological uncanny to build their atmospheres of dread. In his famous essay “The Uncanny,” Freud attempted to explain the unsettling effects of supernatural and horror tales in terms of the return of the repressed anxieties of the subconscious mind. Doppelgängers — people who resemble us but are not us — and repetitions, as well as ghosts and emblems of death, serve as fundamental reminders of a past from which the adult self needs to disassociate itself in order to properly function in human society. In the Southern Reach trilogy, it is no longer just one’s psychological depths that are being repressed, but one’s knowledge of oneself as nonhuman, as much an alien part of a natural world as a plant or a whale. Rather than just tackling the psychological framework of the adult, it is the category of “the human” that these novels gleefully tear at, dissect, and absorb. As such, they make for appropriately spooky reading in the age of the Anthropocene, at our own moment of environmental crisis and uncomfortable self-recognition. If Lovecraft’s scientists were terrified to discover the human race’s peripherality to Nature and to the history of our planet, VanderMeer’s characters are more attuned to the human race’s status, not only as a part of Nature, but more worryingly, as an ecological force in our own right.