(Vol. 3, The Southern Reach Trilogy)
Welcome to Area X: a secluded stretch of Nowhere U.S.A. formerly known as the “forgotten coast.” The land has been invaded by an alien organism. We can’t see it, because it’s nowhere and everywhere. It operates like a microscopic machine or a virus, infiltrating the cells of a host and manipulating its genome, gradually altering every plant and animal from within. It practices mimicry. It can even produce clones of the hosts it invades. And by some extraterrestrial magic it has also encased the region in a dome-like membrane with a portal leading in like an invitation. Expedition teams are sent through to explore Area X, knowing nothing of their enemy, encountering wonder and horror, wooded swamps, fresh air, diverse wildlife, mutant creatures, and a forsaken lighthouse on the beach. In the forest they find a corresponding structure: a tower buried upside down in the ground, like the lighthouse mimicked and inverted. Inside, a staircase plunges a spiraling descent into seemingly infinite darkness, and the curving walls bear a demented message for the expedition members. Written in fungus, a cursive line of living words grows from the smooth fleshy walls.
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 gather in the darkness…
The message goes on and on, curling downward, meaning nothing and yet everything. It is the manifesto of the alien occupying Area X, condemning the world to death but also offering rebirth in the cycle of decomposition and replacement. It’s the voice of Nature itself, merciless and irrepressible and rising to reclaim its pre-human dominion.
This is the world of Jeff VanderMeer’s unsettling sci-fi trilogy, the Southern Reach series. The three books have been released at intervals over this year, and the third installment, Acceptance, is the culmination of VanderMeer’s fantastical nightmare which fuses the author’s celebrated skill in the sci-fi and horror genres with a lyrical vision of humanity’s end.
Book I, Annihilation, is presented as the field journal of the biologist on the twelfth (and final) expedition into Area X. Past expeditions have not gone well. Teams killed each other or themselves or were killed by mutated monsters. Many were never heard from again. Those who did return were not themselves anymore—they were changed, creepily calm and blank, like incomplete replicas of themselves. Nonetheless people continue to volunteer for the missions, such as the biologist, seduced by the spell of adventure cast by the unknown. The expedition members’ names are masked by their archetypal function: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor, the linguist, the biologist. The dehumanizing removal of personal identity is part of the training and conditioning imposed by the Southern Reach, the agency in charge of investigating Area X.
Annihilation is a skin-crawling story, masterfully precise, and the biologist is a subtle, cryptic, captivating narrator who we trust will lead us to a scientific truth in the end. While exploring the tower, the inverted lighthouse, she inhales a spore from the fungal words growing from the walls, and Area X begins to infiltrate her. She can feel herself changing, becoming part of the phenomenon altering the entire region. It manifests gradually in a green phosphorescence glowing from her skin and a feverish feeling of “brightness” and “truthful seeing,” a connection to the earth. This isn’t necessarily a curse for the biologist, who longs for dissolution into Nature, who loathes “the dirt and grit of a city, the unending wakefulness of it, the crowdedness, the constant light obscuring the stars, the omnipresent gasoline fumes, the thousand ways it presaged our destruction.” Area X by comparison is like a wilderness park, a fantasy safari. To the biologist, it feels like the antidote to the poison of civilization. The air in Area X is pristine—“so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself.”
The dauntless, resourceful biologist is a sharp rebuke against our so-called civilized world, and a vehicle for VanderMeer to suggest what arrogant, citified, domesticated creatures we humans have become. The aggressive attitude of the Southern Reach’s investigation into Area X reflects the presumptuous and adversarial relationship humans have established with Nature. We don’t question our divine right to divvy up the planet’s territory and drive back competing species. We don’t expect Nature to fight back. When we venture into the cordoned off wilderness with the proper equipment—to connect with Nature—we expect the world to cooperate. We live in our illusion of control, distracted by the complex game of social survival we’ve invented, meanwhile turning hairless and soft. Area X is a primal reminder of that older dreamworld we emerged from, where humans were prey to impossible creatures and anything could happen.
Book II, ironically titled Authority, cleverly contrasts the fabulous world of Area X with the bureaucratic hellhole of the Southern Reach agency. Situated just a dozen miles outside the “border”—the invisible membrane encasing Area X—the Southern Reach’s jurisdiction is shadowy, vaguely affiliated with the government and military, reporting to Central on high, the sinisterly omniscient parent organization with its fingers in many pies. For decades the Southern Reach has been launching expeditions through the portal in the border in the vain hope of discovering what Area X is and how it works. They’ve gathered few definitive facts, only wild theories and indecipherable data. The mood is like a Cold War bureau’s, paranoid, edgy, pugnacious, and lulled by inaction into hollow bravado. Stepping into this viper pit is the new director, “the fixer.” His first order of business is to insist that everyone call him “Control,” as if he imagines this is a John le Carré novel and he is the chilled impersonal voice of authority. The moniker’s a masquerade, and he knows it. No one is in control. Increasingly we see that the Southern Reach is anything but the last bastion of order before the border. For Area X has already begun to infiltrate the Southern Reach like a mold growing in the crevices. In the empty closet in his office, Control finds words scrawled in black marker on the wall, a carbon copy of the message inscribed in fungus on the spiraling walls of the tower:
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 gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives.
The strangling fruit. It’s a potent image: tendrils of vine snaking from the edenic apple to choke the arm that holds it, to wrap around the tongue and fill the stomach with roots and transform its host from within. The intention suggested by this metaphor—Area X’s mission statement—seems malevolent and vengeful, and most interestingly it mirrors a real-life biological process recently described in Science journal. A genus of plant called Cuscuta, a.k.a. the “strangleweed,” functions like a parasitic vampire, twisting its vines around a host plant, puncturing its stem, invading its vascular system and draining its vital nutrients. But it does not stop there. The strangleweed actually imports its own messenger RNA into the host’s cells and alters its DNA, instructing the host to produce desired proteins and to lower its natural defenses, essentially hacking into its genetic mainframe.
Plants aren’t supposed to behave like this, we think—violently, intelligently. They’re supposed to provide oxygen and food and look pretty. Yet Nature is not a sympathetic process. It’s brutal and horrific and endlessly inventive, like us. Humans, in fact, operate much like the strangleweed on a far more ambitious scale—by invading ecosystems, choking off supply lines, and transforming organisms to suit our needs. From the perspective of every other species, humans are an uncontrollable scourge with no respect for the law of homeostasis. We are to Earth what Area X is to the Southern Reach—an incomprehensible infestation.
Is the alien invader of Area X some kind of celestial retribution for the error of our ways? Where did it come from? How did it create the border? What does it ultimately want? We, the reader, have as many questions about Area X as the Southern Reach. Authority answers some of the questions raised by Annihilation while raising others itself, and there is a sense as we move into Book III, Acceptance, that VanderMeer cannot possibly account for every aspect of the mystery he’s created. Acceptance is a surprising finale, for the books get sequentially larger in length and scope, and we half expect to find Area X spreading over the whole world in Book III. Yet rather than expanding outward, Acceptance circles back in on itself like a nautilus shell, curling into the past, into the pre-Area X days on the rugged forgotten coast, populated by fisherfolk and recluses, the perfect place for a lighthouse and a salty preacher-turned-lighthouse keeper. It’s a brilliant, suspenseful narrative maneuver, for we know what is coming and regard the increasingly strange happenings with delicious dread. There are hints, or red herrings, as to possible causes or contributions to the weird phenomenon about to descend, “the decade or two of lax regulations on off-loading biowaste,” and the fishy “Séance & Science Brigade” investigating the lighthouse for paranormal activity. There are other narratives also looping back on the previous books, providing intimate new perspectives on characters we thought we already knew and scenes we thought we’d already seen.
By the time we reach the end, we are like the well-trained expedition members about to enter Area X: “we knew everything, and we knew nothing.” There are so many unanswered questions, and we’re left with a lingering throb of curiosity. Yet this is the haunting power of VanderMeer’s compelling epic, content to let its questions ring in the emptiness, like the wonder of stargazers welling into the universe. He has written a beautiful, frightening story about the majesty of life, the miracle of biology, which will always elude our absolute grasp. He seems to be reminding us that we’re wrong to think of Nature as confined to this planet, the manageable ecology of our world. Nature is the infinite cosmos, light years and galaxies, matter and void, the aggregation of energy into existence. It’s the universal will to be. Anything is possible. Our earthly arrangement is one variation on an infinite diversity, and to envision it as a subservient force to be mastered is our insane human delusion. We are bound for a scary awakening. It will likely come from a far less exotic source than an alien that “creates out of our ecosystem a new world […] that works through supreme acts of mirroring […] without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters.” No, it will be rising seas, air pollution, food scarcity, bombs. But VanderMeer’s scenario is a fitting fantasy, and a dire warning to our current direction: imagine a more ironic, well-deserved fate than invasion by a mimic that conquers by our enlightened example.