It often crops up in climate fiction that nature, left untamed, is a force that will dominate humans. Jeff VanderMeer writes the natural environment of Annihilation (2014) with such attention to its every vein and sigh; it truly feels alive.
Area X is a bubbled, concealed zone of pristine nature that seems to be spreading and infecting the area around it. The Southern Reach, a scientific and military organisation, have been sending teams into Area X to gather intelligence, but none (of the ten expeditions) have returned. Our characters are unnamed, but we follow the biologist, leading the eleventh (and first all-female) expedition into Area X.
Nature and the environments of Annihilation are deliciously alive, bringing nature to the forefront of the book to be considered as tangibly as the characters – or even as its own character. The colour scape is vibrant and the entire landscape impossible for humans to entirely comprehend. The tower appears alive, itself an organism, breathing and beating, as it’s ‘heartbeat still throbbed against my eardrums’ (page 51). VanderMeer’s description of the land is vivid and vibrant with movement:
As the trail became a raised berm, dull, algae-choked lakes spread out to the right and a canal flanked it to the left. Rough channels of water meandered out in a maze through a forest of reeds on the canal side, and island, oases of wind-contorted trees, appeared in the distance like sudden revelations.VanderMeer, page 89
These ‘channels of water’ that are ‘meandered’ through the landscape seem to build a nervous system, winding through the ground and binding Area X together, flowing and sustaining life, like neurones firing. VanderMeer’s description gives an acute visual sense of the land; it is carved out, the biologist’s heightened awareness to it keen and admiring.
Place is ultimately the resolution to Annihilation, despite the humans’ view of it as the antagonist. The resolution comes in the form of collective coexistence, achieved only by the assimilation of humans to the natural spectrum. The biologist begins to feel in tune with it – ‘I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore’ (page 89). Area X remains uncolonized by humans, leaving instead mankind, perhaps for the first time, themselves colonised.
VanderMeer’s natural writing is masterful, delicate, and delightfully attentive. So much in fact that readers may ponder, as the biologist herself contends – while calibrating to a new perception of the world within Area X – would it be such a bad thing for this mysterious Area X to swallow the world?
By Rory McNeill.