Close Reading 4 of 12 (Environment as a Character in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation) + National Indie Excellence Award 2015!

Well, the three deals I was working on at work finally closed this week, and my second module of my MFA wrapped up on Sunday, so I finally feel like I can breathe again. I actually had a migraine today. It happens sometimes when I’ve been under massive stress and it suddenly dissipates. My mom explained the chemistry of that to me once, but I don’t remember the specifics. Something about the adrenaline departing after the stress events and the remaining chemicals causing the migraine until they equalize again. Either way, the migraine was miserable, but I’m still glad that things have calmed down.

In much better and more exciting news, Compendium, my first novel that released May 5, won the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award in the fantasy category. I was completely shocked to get the e-mail Sunday night telling me I won. I’m still on cloud nine about it. My blog tour wrapped up Friday, and I think that went quite well as well. I got lots of lovely reviews, did some guest posts and had some interviews. All of the reviews and interviews are listed on the Press Page of my primary website. I’ve also been doing an Amazon Giveaway, so if you want to win a paperback copy of Compendium, it’s still going on until May 23, 2015, and you can click here to enter. There’s still one copy up for grabs!

Read on for the main event, my close reading of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. It wasn’t my favorite book, but I think it had some strengths, particularly in VanderMeer’s ability to create atmosphere and bring the world into the story as a character.

Environment as a Character in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation

By Alia Luria

Annihilation is the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, a speculative fiction series that focuses on unnamed human characters attempting to study a region of the United States only referred to in the books as Area X. The organization in the story known as Southern Reach, which has been placed in charge of researching and attempting to find a way to reclaim Area X. Southern Reach has stated that Area X is the result of an environmental event. However, given that much of the information provided to the characters by their superiors at Southern Reach is a fabrication, it is unclear whether Area X was formed from a naturally occurring environmental event, an event precipitated by human actions, or even an alien event occurring on earth.

Although Annihilation starts out with four main characters, named only the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist and the surveyor, events in the story are recounted from the biologist’s perspective. The fifth character in the book, while not directly stated as such, is Area X itself. Area X is a pristine wilderness, but it has certain properties that act upon and affect the biology and mental stability of the human characters. If Area X is truly the product of a human-caused environmental event, which, as stated above, is only one possibly theory, perhaps the properties discussed in Annihilation are a form of the Earth fighting back against humanity’s destructive tendencies. Perhaps there is an alien nature or an evolutionary biology at work that heightens the consciousness of Area X. It is unclear at first, partially because the narrator herself has a certain level of unreliability as her biology begins to mutate due to exposure with Area X.

In the morning, I woke with my senses heightened, so that even the rough brown bark of the pines or the ordinary lunging swoop of woodpecker came to me a kind of minor revelation. The lingering fatigue from the four-day hike to the base camp had left me. Was this some side effect of the spores or just the result of a good night’s sleep? I felt so refreshed that I didn’t really care.

VanderMeer, Annihilation, page 37.

At first the biologist just experiences heightened senses, but this quickly transforms into being able to hear the heartbeat of a stone-capped flesh structure that the team has been exploring. Is this structure, which is referred to in the novel as the Tower, alive or does the biologist only perceive it as alive?

The third thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall . . . the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat . . . and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still black, but a silver-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

“What’s wrong?” the surveyor was asking me, voice muffled through her mask. “What happened?”

I grabbed her hand, forced her palm against the wall.

“Let me go!” she tried to pull away, but I kept her there.

“Do you feel that?” I asked, unrelenting. “Can you feel that?”

“Feel what? What are you talking about?” She was scared, of course. To her, I was acting irrationally.

Still, I persisted: “A vibration. A kind of beat.” I removed my hand from hers, stepped back.

The surveyor took a long, deep breath, and kept her hand on the wall. “No. Maybe. No. No, nothing.”

“What about the wall. What is it made of?”

“Stone, of course,” she said.

VanderMeer, Annihilation, pages 41-2.

Is the biologist just delusional, or is Area X really alive? VanderMeer leaves it unclear for most of the novel, but VanderMeer begins to treat Area X fully as a true character in the story. Prior to this point, Area X is described by the biologist as inanimate, normal world with stone structures in it, even if such structures are disquieting or odd. From this point forward, the biologist quite literally perceives her surroundings as alive, as an organism, in a way that she did not the day before.

It is unclear whether the spores have enhanced the biologist’s perception allowing her to see the tower for what it is, an organism, or whether the spores have only created in the biologist a sense of a living organism where none exists. The answer to this question is in itself irrelevant, as the effect is the same. Area X has come into existence as a character in and of itself. The spores in effect for the biologist are but one tool VanderMeer uses to create a sense of Area X as a cohesive character taking up arms against the human bacteria that have come to make it ill.

The cells of the psychologist, both from her unaffected shoulder and her wound, appeared to be normal human cells. So did the cells I examined from my own sample. This was impossible. I checked the samples over and over, even childishly pretending I had no interest in at them before swooping down with an eagle eye.

I was convinced that when I wasn’t looking at them, these cells became something else, that the very act of observation changed everything. I knew this was madness and yet still I thought it. I felt as if Area X were laughing at me then—every blade of grass, every stray insect, every drop of water. What would happen when the Crawler reached the bottom of the Tower? What would happen when it came back up?

Then I examined the samples from the village: moss from the “forehead” of one of the eruptions, splinters of wood, a dead fox, a rat. The wood was indeed wood. The rat was indeed a rat. The moss and the fox . . . were composed of modified human cells. Where lies the strangling fruit that comes from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead . . .

VanderMeer, Annihilation, page 159.

Here is the biologist’s proof that she is not merely delusional. Certain of the mosses and animals are “transformations” taking place inside Area X, like virii and bacteria being repurposed by the human body to serve it rather than harm it. And yet this shocking revelation is by this point in the novel merely a grounding of what the biologist has perceived all along. What would be shocking to most humans is a confirmation of a pattern familiar to a biologist.

Throughout the entire novel, the balance of power between humanity and nature always favors Area X, and confirmation of this fact does nothing to change what has all along been a truth established by VanderMeer. Whether he speaks through Area X directly using interactions or visual perceptions with and by the biologist or indirectly through the biologist’s musings about Area X or her need to anthropomorphize Area X, VanderMeer has skillfully created a character in Area X that while unable to speak directly to the human characters, exerts its influence and power over them in ways cognizable by the biologist. VanderMeer successfully communicates Area X to and through the biologist without ever directly anthropomorphizing the land itself or creatures residing in the area themselves. The circuitous nature of the communication, while often confusing, evokes realism in such interaction that would be lost through a direct avatar. VanderMeer creates a credible and chilling character in Area X without the use of an avatar, and his skill significantly enhances Annihilation as a work of speculative fiction over simple genre horror.

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