Adrian Graham

Annihilation book cover


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 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?

Annihilation is 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.

The post-apocalyptic story

In Five – the first post-apocalyptic Hollywood film – the characters rationalise their experience and ponder their future in a world destroyed by nuclear war. With civilisation in ruins, they must figure out what kind of society they wish to rebuild.

This dilemma typifies many post-apocalyptic stories, which go beyond the immediate loss and, instead, explore cultural values: what values are necessary to create a decent and just society? What areas of our existing culture must be jettisoned to ensure human survival?

The post-apocalyptic story originates in myth, and literature; appearing in the catastrophic floods of the epic poem Gilgamesh (2100 BC), and the story of Noah and his ark in the Bible. Where civilisation exists there is a reciprocal fear it may somehow collapse, and the world will return to barbarity. Then, with industrialisation, a fear emerged that the increasing mechanisation would be unsustainable: morally, and in terms of the sheer cultural upheaval and drain on natural resources. Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin De Grainville’s prose poem Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man), published in 1805, depicted the end of the world (a ‘dying earth’). Influenced by the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Book of Revelation, and Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, the story is set in a distant future where the world has become sterile and mankind can no longer reproduce. The last (fertile) man has to choose between fathering a child with the last fertile woman, or allowing mankind to become extinct. He chooses not to father a child and consequently the end of the world takes place (which, according to the story, is what God wishes).

In the first ‘modern’ post-apocalyptic novel, Mary Shelly’s The Last Man (1826), the world is destroyed by a devastating plague. Post-apocalyptic worlds commonly suffer from: toxic environments, plagues, disease, severe pollution, sterility, and radiation. The cities quickly become unliveable, with the survivors escaping to the countryside where they can begin again.

Once the big city is destroyed the post-apocalypse story returns to the wilderness (much like the Western). The lone hero wanders through the wild; or a village settlement is forced to defend itself from external threats. And the means of modern technology may be lost, destroyed, or shunned in favour of a simpler life.

In The Time Machine global war has destroyed civilisation, leading to passive ground dwellers and an underground race that preys on the people above for food. In the Terminator the machines have run amok and threaten human survival, and in 28 Days Later humanity is in peril due to a modern-day plague which produces zombies. In When Worlds Collide an astrological event threatens the world, while alien life dominates humanity in Independence Day and The Day of the Triffids. And war, along with competition for resources, leads to mass social collapse in Mad Max, where oil is more valuable than gold, and a lone hero battles gangs of amoral thugs.


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