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Trying to think what one word best describes Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. I could go with "masterpiece," since it is so clearly a major achievement in SF/Fantasy/Weird writing—since it accomplishes so many of the things it sets out to do, since it is so beautifully imagined and written, since it will clearly scoop all the awards next year and remain a touchstone text in the genre for a long time. But that's an evaluative word, and I'm interested (for reasons that will become more apparent) in the descriptive space outside evaluation. The trilogy is science fiction on the haunted, fantastic side of the genre; often brilliantly spooky and uncanny. And VanderMeer has, I suppose, a reputation as Purveyor of High Quality Weird to the Refined Reader. But I remain unconvinced as to the coherency of "weird" as an aesthetic descriptor; and certainly weird-for-the-sake-of-weird (a coinage along the lines of l'art pour l'art—l'étrange pour l'étrange, I suppose) is really not what Southern Reach is about. One of the things that makes these novels so readable is the air of absorbing mystery that VanderMeer flawless evokes; but what makes them so satisfying as a whole is that they are not content simply to evoke that mystery, to make the tiny hairs at the back of the reader's neck stand up. They are not just mood pieces. Indeed, after I had finished I found myself wondering if what these books are doing is reconfiguring pastoral for a new century. So that's the one word I'm going with. Southern Reach are strange pastoral.
The trilogy is set in the Tarkovsky-Stalker-like zone of "Area X," somewhere down Florida way. At some point in the past this area suffered some kind of unexplained catastrophe and, like the "Zona" around Chernobyl, was left to revert to a state of nature. A governmental organisation called the Southern Reach has been tasked with observing and assessing this place, and from time to time sends in expeditions; although these exploratory incursions all end badly.
In Annihilation, the first (and, to revert to evaluation for a moment, the best) of the three novels, one such expedition is described. It is comprised of women and we don't get their names: they are "the psychologist," "the surveyor," "the anthropologist," and our narrator, "the Biologist." An expertly handled piece of characterization, this cool, rather introverted woman has always been more comfortable observing wild ecosystems. When growing up, the pool in her back garden was neglected by her self-absorbed parents, and soon became clogged with weeds, tadpoles and other flora and fauna. The Biologist returns to memories of the hours she spent observing the minute interactions of this re-wilded world as a kind of touchstone for personal happiness. That quality seems to have been largely absent from her adult existence. Her marriage, for instance, had not been a success. Her husband had disappeared on the previous, eleventh expedition into Area X—all previous expeditions (and it seems there were more than the officially logged twelfth) having failed, with explorers going mad, killing one another, committing suicide or succumbing to weird infections and parasites. When her husband unexpectedly and mysteriously turns up again, in her kitchen, he is a hollowed-out, PTSD-y version of the man he had been before, and soon dies of cancer.
The Southern Reach hypnotize the members of the twelfth expedition, a psychological conditioning imposed ostensibly to help them through the border into the zone. It turns out, the hypnotism is more far reaching, an attempt to control the explorers, with the Psychologist possessing certain trigger words to "induce paralysis," "induce acceptance or compel obedience" (Annihilation, p. 135). The title of the first novel is one such hypnotic command: to "induce immediate suicide." Clearly, the Southern Reach don't wholly trust their own explorers; or, rather, don't trust what they could mutate into.
Early in Annihilation the Biologist descends a spiral staircase into a subterranean structure she insists on calling a "tower" and finds a mysterious message written on the walls in letters made of some sort of fungoid vegetable growth. (This text starts: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that . . . and goes on and on). Spores from this fungus somehow de-condition the Biologist from her hypnotism, meaning that she escapes the Psychologist's catastrophic attempts to manipulate the expedition. One member leaves; another is found dead at the bottom of the tower, her body deliquescing and turning luminous yellow. The Psychologist disappears, and when the Biologist chances upon her again she is dying. The Biologist finds the journal kept by her deceased husband. A strange individual called "the Crawler" is threatening the group. I'll pause here, to insert a quote from The Guardian review of the novel:
But what makes this book so remarkable is less what happens in it, and more its tense, eerie and unsettling vibe. Creating such a vibe is a balancing act between (on the one hand) not destroying the mood with too much brute explanation and loose-end-tying-up, and (on the other) not alienating the reader by being too annoyingly oblique. VanderMeer hits exactly the right balance, like a gymnast on a beam. A creepy gymnast who’s been infected with occult fungal spores and is starting to glow yellow.
I think that’s right, and can only commend the insight and eloquence of this Guardian reviewer. The paper should surely put more work their way.
The second volume in the trilogy, Authority, is about the Southern Reach organization itself. The book is mostly concerned with the byzantine in-group political struggles and ultimate impotence of the organization's new leader, "Control." We get some more detail about Area X. There is a mysterious barrier around the zone which may or may not have been created at a different time, and perhaps by a different entity to the one that created the zone. The only way in or presumably out is through a "door" that the Southern Reach did not create. There is video footage of an experiment in which a great many bunny rabbits are herded at the invisible barrier surrounding Area X—they all vanish as soon as intersecting the limit, apparently never to be heard of again. People mention "aliens" for the first time (or, rather, they go out of their way not to mention aliens—"why are none of you comfortable using the words alien or extraterrestrial to talk about Area X?" Control peevishly demands, upon arriving in post (Authority, p. 10). The Biologist from Annihilation is assumed dead, but she turns up, standing in a parking lot outside Area X in what looks like a fugue state. She claims not to remember anything from her expedition. Is she actually the Biologist, or only some occult copy of the original woman? She prefers now to be addressed as "Ghost Bird," the nickname her deceased husband used. We are still not vouchsafed her actual name.
Though not its narrator, Control (a childhood nickname, not a Le-Carré-style job description) is at the heart of Authority, much as the Biologist was at the heart of Annihilation. For me this was one of the reasons the second volume worked less well. It's not so much that the "genre" interest is back-seated in favor of a rather tortuous spy-thriller-bureaucracy satire—although that's kind of true. It's more that the character of Control didn’t strike me as being as well drawn, as sparely yet vividly rendered, as the Biologist. We learn a lot (too much, perhaps) about his childhood, his life before Southern Reach, his difficult relationship with his mother—also in the espionage business, and an important character in the trilogy—and generally about the anxieties and frustrations of his new rôle. How does that Ricky Martin song go? It drags. It doesn't drag excessively, like Danny La Rue; but it certain drags from time to time. Like Eddie Izzard.
Southern Reach call the tower-that's-actually-a-hole-in-the-ground "the topographical anomaly." It appears to be alive. There’s also a lighthouse in Area X, and this structure's former keeper, once called Saul Evans, now something else entirely, appears to have been the author of the strange text (he was a lay preacher as well as a lighthouse-keeper, before whatever happened to Area X happened). In the final volume, Acceptance we discover a good deal more about Saul, as well as solving some—but, satisfyingly, not all—of the mysteries of Area X. The meat of this third novel is the return to the Area of Control and the Biologist—or rather, of "Ghost Bird," the uncanny duplicate of the Biologist. They pop up through an occult undersea portal, and explore the whole zone further.
Now I'm guessing that VanderMeer was aware that this trajectory— (1) mysterious sea-defined zone, odd animals and lots of mystery, (2) characters leave the zone and pootle around "our" world for a while, (3) characters return to the zone changed and resolve many of its mysteries—was going to make many of his readers think of Abrams's Lost. I'm guessing that partly because the comparison is obvious (though VanderMeer does a much better job of wrapping his story up than did Abrams and his scriptwriters). There's also stuff like this (Ghost Bird is sifting through the scattered records of the "Seeker and Surveillance Bandits" who once explored the zone):
In among this detritus, these feeble guesses, the word Found! Handwritten, triumphant. Found what? But with so little data, even Found!, even the awareness of some more intelligent entity peering out from among the fragments led nowhere. (Acceptance, p. 178]
Late in Acceptance Ghost Bird encounters a spooky owl. She wonders if this is some mutant reincarnation of her dead husband, but the impression I got (it's not clear) is that it isn't. It is a testament to VanderMeer's skill in these books to say that by this stage it comes across almost as cheating, to peg so intrinsically eerie a creature as "owl" in this way: earlier, the books have convinced the reader to be weirded-out by bunnies and dolphins. An owl is almost too obvious. It possesses too straightforward a metaphoric relationship to the theme. Elsewhere VanderMeer expresses exactly this. "Data pulled out of Area X duplicates itself and declines, or 'declines to be interpreted' as Whitby puts it." Southern Reach linguists compare it to "a tongue that curled up and took them with it":
Area X muddying the waters. Except that it wasn't muddying waters or a tongue by the side of the road or anything else, muddled or not, that they could understand. "We lack the analogies" was itself somehow deficient as a diagnosis . . . Except Area X never responded, even to that indignity. (Acceptance, p. 46)
The "allure" of the place lies "in its negation of why" (Acceptance, p. 193). It is possible to frame descriptive accounts of nature in terms of "why." It isn't possible to frame evaluative or moral accounts that way. Nature isn't a why.
SF has had a rather awkward relationship with "Nature." Most often, I suppose, it has figured only as a resource to be improved with technology, something that backgrounds the main business of the standard genre fare—that is, if it is present at all (and there have been plenty of Trantor/Corruscant wholly urban SF built worlds). Iain M. Banks set his hugely popular novels in the Culture, after all; not in the Nature. The SF Encyclopedia's only entry on Nature rather makes my point for me.
There has been something of a "turn," though; and although I'm going to suggest this is a recent thing. A couple of VanderMeer's reviewers have compared Southern Reach to Ballard, reaching for some way of flagging up the deliberately disorienting aesthetic at work. Plus: the Biologist's prompt for her fascination with the natural world is a disused swimming pool. But I don't think the comparison quite right, actually. Ballard's disused swimming pools tended to be empty; VanderMeer's pool is brimming and indeed overflowing with gloopy life. Ballard's interest was in the spooky dynamics of groups—in his later career, almost always gated communities of the wealthy. There's surprisingly little "nature" in his works. VanderMeer, on the other hand, fills all three novels with vivid and sometimes gorgeous descriptions of nature, but seems interested in the human group dynamics (of explorer teams, of the Southern Reach organisation, of families, of lovers) really only to the extent that they break down and disintegrate. What might look at the beginning of the series as a rather modish absence of proper names becomes, by the end, more significant: proper names are shed in the course of the book because they are so specific to human interpersonality. Animals do without names. Nature is not named.
The "turn" I’m thinking of is not really Ballardian. It is evident, though, in writers like M. John Harrison—and Southern Reach has a cooler, less spiky Harrisonian feel to it—or in some of Iain Sinclar's less urban-focused prose (I'm thinking of the descriptions of English and Welsh countryside in the too-little-known Landor's Tower ). I might also mention books like Simon Ings's Wolves (2014). I might also mention myself, if it didn't look like I was trying to hijack the review to plug my own stuff; so I won't—except to say that even though I wrote my latest novel (about an angry man and some Southern English wildernesses) before I read VanderMeer's trilogy, the prior appearance of Southern Reach is inevitably going to make my version look derivative. The more interesting question is whether there's something in the water that is informing speculative writing today. Maybe "Nature" in this sense is the coming thing. A kind of Macfarlanization of the SFnal idiom.
"Nature" in the sense that I’m using it here—in the sense that informs these novels—is a relatively new phenomenon. Raymond Williams's lengthy Keywords entry on the word starts:
Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language. It is relatively easy to distinguish three areas of meaning: (i) the essential quantity and character of something; (ii) the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both; (iii) the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings. Yet it is evident that within (ii) and (iii), though the area of reference is broadly clear, precise meanings are variable and at times even opposed. The historical development of the word through these three senses is important, but it is also significant that all three senses, and the main variations and alternatives within the two most difficult of them, are still active and widespread in contemporary usage.
To present a fairly crude reduction of a very long and complication discursive history, we could say that one valorized iteration of "nature"—wilderness nature, the state in which the world exists when men and women don't interfere with it by cutting it down, concreting it over and so on—is a Romantic and a post-Romantic invention. Since life preceded humanity on this planet of ours by billennia, this might look like a foolish thing to assert. Surely (you could say) "wilderness" is the default setting of the natural world, something into which homo sapiens has blundered very late in the game. That's as may be; but I'm talking not about brute reality but about the value discourse of the natural world. This latter is both deeply embedded in (for instance) contemporary environmentalism (in the sense that some forms of nature are taken to be "better" or "worse" than others—pristine national parks are better than chemically polluted factoryside lakes, for example)—and a profoundly humanocentric state of affairs. I say this in as neutral a way as I can muster: outwith mankind the natural world is neither good nor bad, because "good" and "bad" are human concerns. It is neither good nor bad that sharks eat tuna, or fungus rots old oak trees. It just is. You might say well, surely it's good for the shark and bad for the tuna, I'd reply that you're stretching the meaning of "good" and "bad." My point is that it's not morally or aesthetically good or bad; because the idiom of nature-in-itself is dynamic and competitive existence, not morality or aesthetics. The fact that you are starving doesn't delight the forest in which you hunt fruitlessly for food; nor is the forest in which you hunt fruitlessly for food saddened to see the state you've gotten into. The forest doesn't care one way or the other. Caring is what humans do, not forests. Forests are no more malicious than they are compassionate. Forests are forests. Characters in the Southern Reach ponder this very question. What does the organism, or whatever it is, that has transformed Area X want? Control thinks he understands its purpose ("which is to kill us, to transform us, to get rid of us" [Acceptance, p. 190]). He calls it "enemy," because it reassures him to frame events in this black-and-white way. Ghost Bird isn't so sure: maybe the horrifying things that have happened to the explorers is a sign not of hostility, but indifference.
"Had they, in fact, passed judgment without a trial? Decided there could be no treaty or negotiation?"
"That might be closer to the truth, to a kind of truth," Ghost Bird replied. It was now early afternoon and the sky had become a deeper blue with long narrow clouds sliding across it. The marsh was alive with rustlings and birdsong.
"Condemned by an alien jury," Control said.
"Not likely. Indifference." (Acceptance, p. 79)
This is, perhaps, the real skill in VanderMeer's eerie vision: precisely this sense that we move through a living cosmos that neither loves nor hates us, but which is instead magisterially indifferent to us. How sharp a cut to our collective amour proper! Hatred would be preferable. How much more does SF prefer the acid tooth hostility of Geiger's Alien (that enduring genre epitome of the monstrous-organic) to the unsettling blankness, the beautiful semiotic void of Tarkovsky's "zona"? Better to be hated. At least then we matter at least enough to arouse strong emotions. But the refrigerator motor chugging quietly round the back of the Southern Reach books, and generating their palpable chill, may be something much less reassuring than the horror cliché of hatred. At least you know where you are with a Triffid. We lose our way in a particular manner in Area X. It's not just that we longer know where we are. We no longer know what we are.
Actually my point is less grandiose. It has to do with the cultural representation nature. In this context, the valorization of "wilderness" is an invention of Romantic poetry. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries are full of nature poetry of course; but the emphasis is horticultural. For pre-Romantic poets it's common sense that nature is at its most beautiful in a garden or (managed) country estate; wildernesses and deserts might evoke the shiver of the sublime, but they were almost by definition ugly rather than beautiful. Wordsworth is probably the key figure. His poetic celebration of the wilder landscapes of the Lake Distract (rather than, say, Surrey or Kent, "the Garden of England") shifted the public aesthetic. Scott's novels achieved something similar for the grandeur of the Scottish highlands. By the later nineteenth-century, wilderness was not only appreciated on its own terms, it was being actively preferred by some to cultivated spaces. Not by everyone (English hymnist Dorothy Gurney, born 1858, is famous today for one couplet: "You're closer to God's heart in a garden/Than any place on earth"). There's no shortage of beautifully manicured lawns and robo-pruned topiary in contemporary science fiction: from the artfully corporatist landscaping of StarFleet's San Francisco headquarters to the "gene wizards" gardening on a solar-systemic scale in McAuley's Quiet War books (2008-2013). New Edens.
But for others, especially those writers interested in the inheritance of Romantic and Gothic sublime, "good" wilderness has exerted its pull. For instance, it informed some aspects of the boom in utopian writing: Richard Jefferies's After London (1885) delights in the overthrow of the poisonous city and a fresh new life in Nature; and both J. Leslie Mitchell and S. Fowler Wright thought that the route to human happiness was to embrace a life of noble savagery. Mind you, the pastoralism of William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) is much more garden-like than it is wildernessy. If "man" and "nature" are imagined as at odds to one another, then one will presumably have to win out over the other. Still, broadly speaking, SF tends to dramatize "nature" as something to be adapted to serve the interests of humankind—as with the intricately detailed terraforming of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books (1993-1996) and 2312 (2012)—rather than the other way about (Pohl's Man Plus, for instance). In this SF was reflecting a world where we have, more or less, put all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum, charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em. And the reaction against that situation as often involves symbolic demonization of "the natural': Quatermass's 1950s astronaut, infected by alien life and slowly turning into a cactus monster. The Antarctic scientists in John Carpenter's body-horror classic The Thing (1982), consumed by biological hideousness in a way simultaneously repulsive and fascinating to us, the audience—the very definition of Abjection. The difference between those icky symbolic fables on the one hand and Southern Reach on the other is not just that the former play their strange mutations as merely horrifying, where VanderMeer manages a skilful balancing act between ghastliness and glamor. More telling, I think, is that such intrusion of alien nature in SF usually takes place to a body or bodies, inside an otherwise unaltered environment—Quatermass's metamorphosing spaceman stumbling around regular 1950s London. In Southern Reach, it is the environment as a whole that is weird. Our Thing-like mutation is a process of aligning ourselves with the new reality.
VanderMeer, clearly, is writing is work of complex modern environmentalism, a reaction to our collective mistreatment of "nature" and the consequently parlous state of our environment. But I think he's doing something more than that. He is channeling a deeper disquiet about nature itself; the way we are increasingly unable to think of the natural world as a pretty backdrop to human affairs, or a resource to be exploited. A time (in the word of Joshua Ramey) "when 'nature' has become something like absolute contingency, incarnate." It is a matter of the relative orientation, in amongst all the dread and horror and symbolic articulation of disgust at human environmental pollution. The remade Ghost Bird is able simply to be in Area X. Control, constantly if impotently itching for comprehension, agency and power, cannot.
On their fourth day in Area X, Control followed Ghost Bird through the long grass, puzzled, confused, sick, tired—the nights so alive with insects it was hard to sleep against their roar and chitter. While in his thoughts, a vast invisible blot had begun to form across the world outside of Area X …
"How can you be so cheerful?" he'd asked her, after she had noted their depleted food, water, in an energetic way, then pointed out a kind of sparrow she said was extinct in the wider world, an almost religious ecstasy animated her voice.
"Because I'm alive," she'd replied. "Because I'm walking through wilderness on a beautiful day." (Acceptance, p. 77)
But can it really be so simple, this being-in-the-world malarkey? To put it another way: is the weight more on the "religious," or on the "almost," there? And actually this is key, I think. If Southern Reach actually added up to a macfarlaney celebration of wild places wrapped about with the ribbon of an SFnal weird mystery, it would be a lesser achievement. But VanderMeer's brilliance here is not so much in the delineation of Nature Redux, however lovingly and carefully he describes his blisses/of shapes that haunt these wildernesses. It is in the way he frames the question of our place in nature.
I say this in part to reflect the thoughts I've been having, pondering the trilogy and trying to work out the place the middle volume has. To repeat myself, I don't think Authority works nearly as well as the other two books. More, there's something unbalanced (something that has the outward appearance almost of pandering to the present-day absurd commercial template of trilogies as arbitrary publishing format) about putting out three books—I say so, because the books themselves are so fascinated with doubles, not with triplets. The passages where Ghost Bird in Acceptance ponders what it would be like to meet the Biologist; the lighthouse-keeper's love affair with Charlie, Control and his mother, all refract the central binary of Area X and rest-of-the-world which is the way this text epitomizes precisely the nature-culture divide itself. As an articulation of a particular process of metamorphosis the book goes from before to after without dwelling (as with the mysteriously disappearing bunnies as they are shoveled towards the barrier) on the actual process of change. It's a conceptual dyad for which a triadic narrative breakdown feels like a mismatch.
But there it is: Authority and all the detail it gives us about the Southern Reach. Why? Well, at some point after finishing the final volume I was put in mind of this passage (part 1, §7, if you want chapter and verse) from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals:
One will have divined already how easily the priestly mode of valuation can branch off from the knightly-aristocratic and then develop into its opposite; this is particularly likely when the priestly caste and the warrior caste are in jealous opposition to one another and are unwilling to come to terms. The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent. It is because of their impotence that in them hatred grows to monstrous and uncanny proportions, to the most spiritual and poisonous kind of hatred. The truly great haters in world history have always been priests; likewise the most ingenious haters: other kinds of spirit hardly come into consideration when compared with the spirit of priestly vengefulness. Human history would be altogether too stupid a thing without the spirit that the impotent have introduced into it.
This, perhaps, is the point of the second volume: to delineate the social logic of the priesthood. The warriors are all long gone; in place of the knight-aristocratic world, and appropriately for a post-Enlightenment Republic like the USA, are the pen-pushers and the microscope-peerers. The Southern Reach's impotence in the face of Area X merely magnifies and externalises this Nietzschean inner ressentiment. More, VanderMeer's bureaucratic and scientific "priests" are desperately trying to be warriors, running around with guns, shooting at random—incompetent and ignorant but aggressively so.
Once they go outside, where the strange, the stranger is found, they are not much better than uncaged beasts of prey. There they savour a freedom from all social constraints, they compensate themselves in the wilderness for the tension engendered by protracted confinement and enclosure within the peace of society, they go back to the innocent conscience of the beast of prey, as triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a students' prank, convinced they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise.
The novels are about the monstrosity not of the other, nor even (really) of the human heart; but of the particular state of affairs when modern human beings find themselves so jarringly out-of-place in an environment not interested in supporting them.
And this, in turn, brings me back to Pastoral. Classical pastoral was an idealized version of a perfect and blissful natural environment. In Theocritus and Vergil and Spenser, shepherds are not troubled with the toil of actually looking after sheep; instead they spend their days filling their bellies with delicious food, playing music and making love. That, in a sense, is the point of pastoral—the enjoyment of civic levels of luxury in a rural setting. All that VanderMeer's rather brilliant rewiring of the pastoral mode as horror does is to bring out the fundamental mismatch in the original material. "Nature" is inhabited by the cultured; not farmer and hunters but desk-workers and clock-watchers—not Nietzschean warriors but Nietzschean priests, with all the petty dissatisfactions and resentments of their caste. It is from this mismatch that The Southern Reach generates so many of its so very powerful effects.
Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.