Annihilation (2014) is the first novel in The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer. The author writes what he calls ‘EcoStorytelling’, a mode of speculative fiction that allows us to imagine future scenarios in which ecosystems are beyond repair, usually due to human intervention. His books incorporate into ecological discourse the idea that it is consumption and capitalism that takes us there; the biotech-apocalyptic novel Borne (2017) is a clearer example of this idea. Annihilation falls within the remit of weird fiction, a mode of writing which plays with surreal elements and moments of heightened emotion. Area X, the setting for Annihilation, was inspired by the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and its lighthouse. VanderMeer is a keen hiker, and has mentioned several times in social media hiking trips to this sublime space, and also his continued support of the work of the refuge.
VanderMeer has called his writing style in the Southern Reach ‘weird nature writing’. Nature is portrayed as uncanny/dangerous/ unexpected, as beyond the comprehension of the characters, specially after tampering with the environment has occurred. Area X is a presented as a transitional space, and the novel has a marked insistence in cross-polinisation, thresholds, spaces of change, and porous borders. Metamorphosis abound in Area X as well, as the novel asks us to consider human interaction with altered spaces, and our own response to questions of adaptation in a changed nature.
Sample ideas for discussion:
- Area X is presented at the opening of the novel as an ‘untroubled’ landscape, the first expedition reported ‘pristine, empty wildness’. But one of the main themes of the novel is transformations/mutations, accepting them as a way of survival. This connects with climate change adaptation: this idea that now we can grow wine in the UK as a ‘positive’ economic effect of climate change.
- Nature is portrayed as terrifyingly beautiful, and there are moments of sublime emotion in the novel. But there is constantly the sense of someone or something monstrous lurking in the background, or examples of the capacity of nature itself to be monstrous. Does this ambivalence work within the book? Why is it there?
- They refer to each other by their profession. This makes the reader think that the lack of names has a dehumanising effect. In that contexts, it is very telling that when the surveryor is trying to kill the biologist, she asks her name, and the biologist doesn’t want to give it, as if she is accepting becoming one with the landscape.
- Is the narrator unreliable? She both talks about herself as objective, and not objective, in her scientific observations. She discuses habitats, ecosystems, but, how reliable are her observations? Is it important or relevant that she is a biologist?
- ‘I suppose I have continued to refer to the changes in me as “brightness”, because to examine this condition too closely – to quantify it or deal with it empirically when I have little control over it – would make it too real’. Does this sound like a reference to climate change itself? Are all these notions of something beyond our perception a veiled commentary on climate change?
- The references to losing oneself in the landscape are continuous; also, the biologist says at some point that, despite its horrors, there is no place she would rather be than Area X. Why the attraction to it?
- Theme of memory: they keep saying ‘I kept un-remembering’ ‘he did remember me, but only through a kind of fog’. What is the role of memory in the book, or remembering things and ‘un-remembering’ them?
Interviews & book reviews:
- ‘The Weird Thoreau’, The New Yorker
- ‘Organized chaos: an interview with Jeff VanderMeer’, Paris Review
- ‘Weird and New Weirder: an interview with Jeff VanderMeer’, BookRiot
- ‘Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy’, Electric Literature
- ‘Annihilation Review – You’ll find yourself unable to turn the page’, The Guardian
Other books by the author:
- List of Jeff VanderMeer’s works in Goodreads
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