In the novel Annihilation (2014), by Jeff VanderMeer, an area located in Florida, designated ‘Area X’, has been overtaken by unknown forces, creating a strange and mysterious ecosystem, which might possibly be an alien entity.
Here, weird things occur, normal expectations are confounded by evolutionary anomalies, psychological disturbances, and other unexplainable phenomena. When an expedition of four women is sent into ‘Area X’, each member possessing a specific skillset, they encounter forces none of them can comprehend.
The writing is prosaic yet compelling, rich descriptions of ‘Area X’ intercut with the internal meanderings and rationalisations of ‘The Biologist’, who is authoring the journal. The novel, her journal, has resonance with the other journals she finds spookily piled up in the lighthouse. These are part decayed, but nonetheless absorbingly addictive, even in their banality.
The story has obvious similarities to other science fiction stories like Stalker, Solaris, The Sphere, and the television series Lost. Stalker features a weird ‘Zone’ with paranormal powers, a place where time and space appear to mesh together in a different way, a place where people go to find life answers, to be healed, to find themselves, to have an experience, and so on. It’s also a place where the authorities previously sent in the military to control the situation, but this dramatically failed to solve anything. Now, in both Stalker and Annihilation, the strange area has been closed off and managed, with the occasional expedition sent inside. And, like Stalker, the environment in ‘Area X’ superficially appears unremarkable, although there are evolutionary anomalies and paranormal happenings. The landscape in Annihilation feels like a Duchampian readymade, an ordinary natural space reimagined through storytelling into a wonderful and fantastic world. The ordinary made new again by wrapping it in the enigmatic and otherworldly.
The investigative team enters ‘Area X’ without modern technology, reliant on their journals to record their thoughts and observations. These journals are reminiscent of the pneumatic capsule pipeline reports in the similarly weird island in Lost, observations of experiments, which end up pointlessly discarded in a pile cascading down a mountainside. Is this a comment about the act of observing: the pointlessness of over rationalised observation? Because all observation however pseudo-technical or scientific is subjective… stuck inside the limitations of words and language?
Like Lost’s Pacific island in the middle of nowhere, ‘Area X’ is strange and bound by different rules, a place where space and time meet to provide possibilities unavailable in the normal world. A portal of some kind. This implies dimensional travel, time travel, a place where sub-atomic particles collide to produce new kinds of ‘stuff’… this process, is coincidentally, technically known as Annihilation, although ‘annihilation’ in this story relates to something else.
The journals seem to be the key to this story, a story about storytelling, about experiencing and observing, about self-absorption and introspection, about being made to fit in (by her husband) and refusing to fit it (being true to her nerdy loner essence), it’s also about being amalgamated into the ecosystem of ‘Area X’, becoming part of it, transformed, merging into its essence. This could be perceived to be horrific or zen-like, take your pick.
What is ‘Area X’? It’s a bizarre natural phenomenon (well, it has logically occurred within nature, so technically that’s what it is), but it could also be something of extra-terrestrial origin, an alien lifeform, a weird presence like the entity in The Sphere, (which also produces disturbing psychological effects on the similarly hand-picked team of specialists); or an organic version of The Cube, a puzzle, one that exists as an entire ecosystem, and like life itself it ultimately confounds rational investigation. This ‘sentient life’ uses human language, words to communicate. Although it’s unclear what it’s trying to say. Alternatively, these words could be the leftover vestiges of people from previous expeditions, something akin to the creatures ‘memory’ of them, or their minds incorporated into it. There are parallels here with Arrival, an alien life communicating with people, although in Annihilation it’s unclear is this is important, or an irrelevant-but-curious garbage-like by-product.
Annihilation skirts a fine line between a matter-of-fact excursion into a radioactive-like wilderness something akin to Chernobyl, a place after people, or a post-people environment – a horror story – and the narrator’s making sense of her previous life, one which seems unsatisfactory to her. Is ‘Area X’ a kind of afterlife possibly? Unlike other people who return as emotional husks from ‘Area X’, her life was lacking and empty when she was outside. She only becomes her true self once she has transformed into an ‘Area X’-ified-person.
The story refuses to use names, or (to clarify), The Biologist who writes the journal refuses to use personal names. I assume this is because, once subsumed into the ecosphere of ‘Area X’ human names become meaningless to her.
Annihilation’s mysterious ‘Area X’ provides a space where people find or lose themselves, where conventional meanings are annihilated. In this place full of psychological pressures, people crack. In a zen-like way, they either become part of this strange environment, like the living-island in Lost, or it tears them apart psychologically.
It’s a classic journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ using the trusty storytelling device of the written journal – recording the narrator’s desire to capture and make sense of her experience, in much the same way an author uses stories to make sense of the world.