Science fiction and fantasy typically involve the central characters of the book going to strange places and facing threats that are not of this world. Our own planet, however, is not as tame and domesticated as we would like to believe. Johanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain is a good example of how wild places can become unfamiliar, scary and dangerous. Jeff VanderMeer’s new project, the Southern Reach trilogy, is another such work.
Area X, we are led to believe, is a part of the USA, probably part of Florida (where Jeff and Ann live) given the ecology. But it is a part of the country that is now under quarantine. Something strange has happened there, and the Southern Reach Authority, a clandestine government agency, has sealed it off. There is a border now. Expeditions are sent in to investigate. Sometimes they don’t come back. If a few stragglers do re-appear, they are often strangely changed, and quickly taken into care by the Authority.
The first book in the trilogy, Annihilation, focuses on the Twelfth Expedition. It consists of four women. The anthropologist is nervous, already regretting her decision to enter Area X. The surveyor is a military veteran, deeply suspicious of everything and everyone. The psychologist is the team’s leader, privy to secrets that the Southern Reach Authority deemed the other members did not need to know. We follow the action through the eyes of the biologist, someone who is such a loner, so at home in the wilderness, that she might just have what it takes to survive in Area X.
Everyone has their own reasons for volunteering for an Expedition. For the biologist, it is because her husband was a member of the Eleventh Expedition. He was a returnee. When the unmarked cars from the Authority came to take him away, the biologist was very relieved. Not that she is foolish enough to divulge any of her feelings to the psychologist.
Inside Area X there are more questions than answers. Why are expeditions not allowed to carry any modern technology with them? What is the mysterious building, so large and obvious, that is not marked on any of the maps provided by the Authority? Why does the building appear to be like a huge tower mostly buried in the ground?
Questions can also be asked about the Southern Reach Trilogy. Some of the influences are obvious. Fans of the X-Files will be familiar with the idea of government cover-ups. VanderMeer loyalists will warm to the idea that characters can be infected, changed, by fungi. The monstrous presence of House Of Leaves lurks in the tunnels under the Tower.
A common mistake of writers of trilogies is to reveal all there is to know about the world in the first volume. VanderMeer goes nowhere near that. By the end of Annihilation, we can’t be sure whether anything we have learned is true. The biologist is not a wholly reliable narrator, and she has clearly been the victim of manipulation by the agents of the Authority. Thankfully, the other two volumes of the trilogy are due out this year (and yes, Jeff has finished writing them). For award purposes they will probably get treated as a single story, even though they will not be a continuous narrative.
Given the level of uncertainty, it is hard to say anything definitive about Annihilation. We can only grope at it, try to discern its shape from the glimpses we have been offered. It is in part intriguing, in part deeply disturbing. Some of its words will haunt your dreams.
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…
In Area X mankind must evolve to survive. Failure to survive is no escape.
For more information about Jeff VanderMeer, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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