Friday, 6 October 2017

Reading Notes: Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Spoiler warning for all of it, probably.


(at this point, about a fourth into Acceptance, the third part of the trilogy). 

I started reading this trilogy after seeing the trailer for Alex Garland's adaptation of Annihilation, which will presumably only cover the first book of the same title. Was immediately drawn in by the sparse prose in that first book, which follows a protagonist simply called the biologist into a mission to Area X, a mysterious zone that has appeared in the world at some point in the past and can only be reached through a gate in an otherwise impenetrable border. We learn over time that many such missions have existed (hers is numbered Twelfth, although it is later revealed that there were many more missions than the numbering would lead you to believe). Her companions also have been asked to give up their names for the mission, and go by designations like the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. 

In addition to the sparse prose, the very concept of the book is immediately captivating. Area X isn't explained because the scientists investigating it cannot explain it (there are several theories about how it came into existence, including aliens, none of which have any substantial proof behind it). As the twelfth expedition starts making their way through the area (what is later conceptualised as a terroir - a term provided by one of the scientists working to uncover the secrets on the other side of the border -  loaned from winemaking, it describes the combination of environmental factors that go into the making of a particular wine), odd things start to creep into the narrative. I would probably describe the first book in particular as a environmental horror rather than science fiction, as the driving emotion and the most moving thing that drives the narrative forward is the transformation that takes place. The group encounters animals that have human facets (later, we are led to think about them as remnants of previous expeditions, turned into something else that is now haunting this place), and a "tunnel" (that, inexplicably, the biologist insists on calling a "tower", because it is like a buried tower, and language starts playing an essential role in all of it from the very beginning, even though the expedition left their linguist behind the border). The biologist finds writings on the wall of that tunnel that turn out to be a fungus in the shape of writing, the spores of which infect her because she doesn't take any precautions when she attempts to comprehend what she has found. She keeps the possible infection secret from the others and tries to monitor how it affects her, and very soon realises that the most obvious change in her is that she can now escape the psychologist's hypnotic commands, which keep the other team members under control. 

Annihilation is a short book, and it tracks the progression of the biologist, providing a bit of backstory (like how her husband was on the previous eleventh expedition, returned without most of his memories, and died soon after of cancer, like everyone else on that mission), managing to portray a woman who is so essentially solitary that it seems almost inevitable how much she is drawn to Area X. It's not really made clear if her fascination, and her eventual decision not to leave, is rooted in who she was as a person before she even entered Area X (someone who loved to be in the field but always clashed with any kind of authority, or human intervention, someone who feels at home in nature and at odds in any kind of city or social environment), or in the person that she becomes when she is there. Everything collides into a beautiful and horrible climax once she makes her way deeper into the "tower", down the steps of the rabbit hole, when she encounters the creature that is creating the writings on the wall. It touches her, and seems to absorb her, or change her fundamentally on a genetic level. She survives the pain, somehow (at that point already being the sole survivor, after the anthropologist is killed by that same creature early in the book, after the psychologist has leaped to her death out of an odd conviction that the biologist is intending to kill her, after the biologist herself kills the surveyor out of self-defence). Instead of trying to be retrieved, she chooses to go where she believes her husband to be - because earlier, making her way to the lighthouse (a literal and metaphorical lighthouse, the core thing in her mission, where she ends up finding so many journals and documents that point to the long history of earlier missions, and tries to collect as much data as possible to understand, which ends up leading her nowhere, really), she has found her husband's journal and started to believe that the person who returned from that mission was a copy, that he never really returned. 

I'd argue that Annihilation works as a completed novel in itself, that it doesn't even need the two books following it, if you escape the need for an explanation for Area X. I'm not yet at a point in the third book where an explanation exists (there is history, which I will get to later, but nothing like a coherent, logical, historical explanation yet), but her searching, her fascination with the biology, the way she is drawn into it, the way she starts to glow as she becomes more and more part of it, while still considering how her past influences her in all of this (memories seem to be really important here as well, how they shape identity and conceptions, how they root and unroot), make this into an incredibly captivating, self-contained story. I'm really curious to see this play out on the screen, where Alex Garland will rely on Natalie Portman communicating all of this (will there be narration? Will it all just be her ability to translate all of this into facial expressions?). Annihilation reminded me of so many other things, but the first one that came to mind, for the sheer solitary nature of the protagonist, was Die Wand / The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, which has also been turned into a marvellous film recently. The "border" in that book is as sudden an inexplicable as it is in this first book, and we are trapped within the limited world that the protagonist moves in, with no way of ever coming close to understanding why it is happening. She makes do, because she is resourceful and seems very capable of living in such an environment, and the biologist is similar in that regard. Existential danger comes in part from the environment itself, but for the most part, its other people and their intentions which threaten her the most. 

But it's a trilogy, regardless, and the second book, Authority, moves outside Area X, into the Southern Reach which borders it, where government scientists have been working for a very long time (I'm not sure if the book gives us a precise timeline here, but the assumption is that all of this has happened maybe 40 or 50 years ago, as people from when it happened first are still alive, but old). Our new protagonist is Control (we do learn his actual name, but it suits to stick to what the book does, using job designations primarily to describe people), an intelligence officer of sorts who has taken over the agency from a predecessor who turns out to have been the psychologist, in disguise. He uncovers the inner workings of the agency, of the scientists who have obsessively attempted to comprehend this incomprehensible mystery, and the way that this work has changed them utterly. He also starts to understand the draw of Area X, which doomed the psychologist / former director when she decided to first go on an unsanctioned clandestine mission into what she had researched, and then join the twelfth mission in an official capacity. Even though we know that both the anthropologist and the surveyor perished in the previous book, they make a return here, having reappeared across the border (they are discarded in the first few pages though, and never return). He begins an odd relationship with the biologist, who has also reappeared, and is being held for questioning. He tries to uncover what she has learned across the border, but only starts to realise that this woman isn't quite the biologist that went into the mission (and the biologist here herself starts to realise she is just a copy with implanted memories). The inevitable happens eventually and like hs predecessor, Control can't help but go into Area X, taking the copy!biologist ("I am not the biologist") with him. 

As much as Annihilation is biohorror, Authority starts out as a workplace thriller of sorts, the story of a man from outside an organisation coming in as an interloper and bumping against all the reservations of an established hierarchy, as well as the ambitions of the people he is now meant to lead, who seem unwilling to support him in breaking this whole mystery wide open. Like the first book, it's a balancing act between Control's backstory (informing who he is as a person: the son of a highly successful agent probably interfering with his work and an artist), until eventually the OTHER of Area X starts creeping into the story, transforming characters we've met into something else entirely. Plants that won't die, documents that reveal nothing but still carry the promise of mystery, and in the end, the inevitable draw of Area X, the way it pulls people in (early on he is warned not to stare at the gate too long, a warning he doesn't heed). It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an inevitable circle. Control is drawn to the biologist from the beginning, just from studying the way she chose to reveal nothing about herself in her pre-mission interviews, and even more so wants he meets her in person (or meets the copy of her, in person). Instead of interrogating her, they start playing a game of mutual interrogation, where each of them is eager to find answers to essential questions.

Which brings us to the third book: where Control and whatever this version of the biologist that isn't quite the biologist have returned to Area X, while we learn more about the past, how it all began.

This is the story of the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper, the beacon that was the centrepiece of all these missions (and sometimes I wonder if the tunnel/tower isn't a distraction, deliberately left off the maps, a counterpiece to the lighthouse, a dark tower buried in the ground that might hold a secret portal at the bottom). The lighthouse keeper, who was then turned into the crawler, doomed to write his sermon on the walls, transforming all those people entering Area X into something else, sending back copies doomed without their memories. For now, where I'm at now, it's the story of an old man awaiting retirement while beating back the forces of natural decay, and a young girl (the psychologist, as a child), conversing about the terroir, maintaining it while mysterious science/seance people take their measurements. It is not yet revealed what created it, and if the science/seance people contributed to the creation or merely were sent to try and comprehend it, a predecessor of the doomed agency that Control tried to beat back into shape. Or if it doesn't really matter what caused all of this, if in the end we have to accept that there is an incomprehensive aspect here, a true horror, the idea of something inexplicable slowly advancing, writing its own rules, dooming humanity's effort to scientifically explain everything while equally taking no care of its environment (perhaps the most lasting image in al of this is the thousands of white bunnies, sent into the border, fighting with all they have not to cross). We'll see where all of this goes.

Random notes, at this point:

  • Many, many other things, maybe a trilogy that also thrives on all the other pieces of literature and film that have mapped similar territory. The inexplicable mysteries of Lost (never satisfyingly explained unless you're into religion as a deus ex machina), and even, somehow, because pop culture sometimes works that way, Star Trek Discovery, which introduces a space fungus with all the properties of a deus ex machina technology (a bioweapon but also, so much more) just as I was finishing Authority. The eloquent way in which Arrival conceptualises language as something that creates reality, which isn't that unlike how the Crawler's words inside the tower warp genetic reality like a self-replicating virus. Nature, and the way its beauty can sometimes become horrible in the blink of an eye, is so essential here, but at the same time, the self-contained (and very technological and decisively non-biological) horror of Cube and House of Stairs is very present, especially in Annihilation


Everthing until the end

"Never has a setting been so able to live without the souls traversing it"

This entire trilogy is about mirroring and doubling, its a motive that returns throughout, obviously with the copies of the expedition members, ironically, with Lowry (the sole survivor of the first expedition) recreating the entirety of Area X as a training ground, creating a copy of it in the Southern Reach. Now that we are reaching the end of the story, two threads are working towards each other: After Ghost Bird (the copy of the biologist who knows she is not truly the biologist herself and yet cherishes her own life, her own identity, being a "viable mistake") and Control make their way into Area X through a porthole that Ghost Bird herself has created, to find out the truth or simply to follow their instinct to go there, while the Southern Reach is crumbling, they find Grace, the former Director's Assistant Director. She hints at the catastrophe that has befallen the Southern Reach (the advancing border that everyone was so afraid of), and then eventually they come to realise that time passes differently, that Grace has spent three lonely years here while they have only travelled for a few days. The three of them are now on their own to find answers, not even knowing if there is anything to return back to or if they even want to return (Ghost Bird mostly wants to find a peaceful place of her own that resembles the memories she has of the biologist's obsession with finding human-less biotopes, Control wants to go all the way down the tunnel/tower, through the bright door, Grace remains a mystery for the most part still seemingly bound to her loyalty to the Director/psychologist). 

"Because I'm alive," she'd replied. "Because I'm wakling through the wilderness on a beautiful day."

The other way the story travels is from the past towards the event that created Area X, which has alread begun with the mysterious infection the lighthousekeeper suffers after touching something - that was likely a shard of glass from the beacon lens on the ground. He starts to change, similar to how the biologist started to change after the Crawler (who is the Lighthousekeeper, in the current time) touched her. The narrative itself becomes dominated by the sensations, the way that the transformation makes Saul into something other: heightened senses, dreams or memories from places he has never been to. A possible answer slowly emerges, that of a catastrophe far, far away on a distant planet, destroyed by a falling comet, with some remainder, some seed, travelling across, implanting itself in the lens, only to be activated by the activities of the Science and Seance Brigade, and trying to translate itself into the organisms it encounters, first of all Saul. It's a transcription that is bound to fail and carry errors within it, hence the horror that is the Crawler, although the novel also hints at the beauty of it (like the biologist, whose notes Grace has found, retelling how she made her way to the island while being cared for by an owl that reminded her severely of her husband). The implication being that every single expedition member was transformed into the animals living in Area X, while their mostly non-viable copies (I am not sure if we ever get a definite answer to what happened to Lowry, the first survivor) returned mysteriously across the border. This reminded me of... maybe The Expanse's protomolecule, with its prime directive and the destruction that wreaked on everyone it came into contact with. 

The point being, maybe, that something about the complexity of what happened is incomprehensible to human science at this stage, a realisation that a few characters in the novel come to, while it drives the others who do not insane (like Whitby, who returns with the seed of insanity, until he becomes the wreck of a man that the Director leaves behind when he leaves - the guilt of having left Whitby in that way palpable in the story of the Director, who is our third thread her, the girl Gloria grown into Cynthia, the woman with the secret past and identity, who promised that she would never forget Saul).

I think that's maybe the eloquent beauty in Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy, one that expressed to perfectly through the violent images running through Saul's head during his transformation. It isn't truly an interpretation, only the approximation of it, one that cannot be put into words. He finds the perfect language for the unsayable, the perfect form for his story. The other mesmerising thing is how the characters are so fully shaped, and the person that will stay with me the longest is both the biologist herself, so self-contained and self-sufficient (what is she, after her complete transformation? The leviathan?), and Ghost Bird. 

Like, maybe at its core this is a story about aliens in the sense of alienation, as characters goes insane once their comprehension of the world and each other stops - communication breaks down, their inner voice maybe breaks down as well - and the reason why the biologist does so well through the first book is because her connection to the human outer world is so thin to start out with, which is also the reason why the Director thinks she is so perfect for the mission (and again, I'm very excited to find out how Natalie Portman will play this). It fits perfectly that she insists in her primary interviews that humans ARE animals, that there is no border between the two that would neccessitate a linguistic or moral difference in considering them. In a way, this is what Area X does: turning humans, which have created the environmental destruction across the border, into animals which fit into the "pristine nature" of Area X. This seems to be the most violent immediate effect that Area X has, both when it first appears around Saul in his little happy community and when it spreads to the Research Centre in the Southern Reach later in the book (we get hints of that through Grace and what she and Ghost Bird encounter once they go back there, seeking the new border). 

There are still a lot of unanswered questions here: Grace and the Director get very bogged down in uncovering the conspiracy but focus a lot on Control's grandfather and mother, and never really find an answer to how the Science and Seance brigade started, and therefore, how exactly they ended up putting everything into motion once they poked around in the Lighthouse and the island. Who are Henry and Suzanne? How much of the temporal differences and the sometimes alien skies are actual time & space travel or only fragments of foreign memories that make themselves felt (I guess the point here is it doesn't make much of a difference either way). If this is all about memories and how they shape identities, with so many characters looking back at events in the past, the lives of their parents even, then it is hard to disregard the fact that the alien organism, if that what it is, attempts to find meaning in those traces it finds. It takes Saul's past - as a Catholic pastor - and transcribes it into the writings inside the tower/tunnel. But then there is the fact that almost every character in the books has more than one identity, more than one name (the biologist is also characterised as the member of the expedition most eager to let go of her true name...) - and in many cases, the two identities come with conflict. The Director is both Gloria from Saul's memories and Cynthia. She is the psychologist, leading the expedition. The biologist is the woman who was married to the medic from the eleventh expedition, but also the same woman who has a long past of conflict with other humans. Saul is the Lighthousekeeper and the Crawler, and the Pastor who came into this town to begin a new life (how he made that choice - through a conflict, a question - is not very explicitly discussed, but we can assume things from the fact that he loves Charlie in the book, which would have been a transgression as a priest). Control is John, a child shaped by his very different parents.

It's hard to put into words, but this duality, conflict and sometimes harmony, is beautifully expressed in the tunnel/tower itself. When Saul transforms, he decides that he does not want to become whatever he is about to become in his beloved lighthouse, so he leaves. From the fact that the tower/tunnel is later referred to as the abnomaly, it can be assumed that he CREATED it - over the many, many years that he spent as the Crawler. He might have found it, but it is just as likely that the tunnel-tower is like a reverse lighthouse, something that still resembles his beloved former home, but is also a falsely transcribed version, a literal upside-down version of it. It's a lighthouse dug into the ground, and the beacon on top is now a bright light at the bottom, that might or might not be the portal that led all those previous copies mysteriously back across the border. It would explain why the biologist feels so certain that the correct term to apply here is tower, as much as everyone else keeps calling it a tunnel. Traces of the past remain.

More notes:

  • Something in the back of my mind, with the subtext of an alien organism that takes care of intruding, violent humans by transforming them into the landscape of Area X: the people who seem to deal best with whatever is happening here, that make it the furthest, are the ones that the story mentions have an affinity for animals. The biologist obviously, with her story of the glorious starfish, the hint from a past where she once became violent on a mission because a group of people were torturing an owl (and how beautiful that this is how she re-finds her husband). Control has his cat. I'm torn what tragic Whitby's mouse means - if he has somehow managed to transport it across the border, if he saw something human in that mouse - but it's made clear that after coming back from Area X, becoming more and more disturbed, the creature he makes contact with, the creature he is gentle with, is that mouse, that he cares for. The Lighthousekeeper keeps a detailled journal of all the animals he encounters throughout the day (the same journal that the verses start creeping into, slowly), and he decides not to get of the armadillos, even though girl Gloria points out that he should. 
  • Something else, about how this alien organism seems to seek for authenticity or a core in the people it encounters, and how this is maybe connected to the biologist overcoming the hypnotic programming that gave the psychologist power over the exhibition. Like it removes something artificial, in the process of creating something new? I don't think that it makes much sense to read the Brightness or whatever you'd like to call it as invasive or ill-intented, something invasive. If anything, it's intention is restoration, which fails because the translation isn't perfect, because communication (a biological, genetical communication) fails - but maybe it's getting better at it, since Ghost Bird seems to be doing fairly well. And its attempts to communicate with Lowry (even though that in itself is an interpretation by the Director, one that profoundly scares Lowry), who is clearly doing the most damage in the books, might be a hint that IT, if it has intentions, has good ones. 

1 comment:

André said...

Thanks for your notes. I really enjoyed reading them. The Southern Reach Trilogy was so interesting to read but at the same time a bit confusing.
I don't remember the book here but I like your interpretation of what the Science and Seance Brigade was doing at the lighthouse. However, how did they know that there was "something" in the lens at the lighthouse and what kind of experiments did they do? It would be great if Jeff VanderMeer would write another book with the story around it :-)