Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation: Otherness and Climate Change
Spoiler’s ahead for Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
Annihilation is a work of unmitigated alienation. I agree with critics who consider it an inheritor of the Lovecraftian tradition. Indeed, it has a lot of similarities to the work of Lovecraft, but also some notable differences. The similarities lie in the way it alienates the reader by stressing the incomprehensible and indescribable nature of some of the phenomena which are discovered by our protagonist, especially the description of the Crawler has a Lovecraftian flair to it. Another element that reminds me of Lovecraft is the ‘compromised’ nature of the protagonist. While in Lovecraft and also Edgar Allen Poe the confrontation with the otherworldly often drives the protagonists into madness or a close approximation of it, here we find a more physical compromise rather than a psychological one.
The Biologist is indeed infected by the spores of the mysterious words found in the tower and ‘the Brightness’ that has infected her clearly has influenced her sensory perception. Whether or not the Brightness is heightening her perception or is merely giving her hallucinations is left ambiguous. And in that lies the most striking aspect of the novel: many incomprehensible, strange and otherworldly features are described, but none of these are explained: the mystery, the impossibility, the terror and the awe remain unadulterated by attempts at explanation or rationalisation. The hints at explanation that are given remain mostly implicit, hypothetical, subjective and always as a question rather than an answer. (While being visually impressive and obtaining some of the mystery and magic of the novel and interesting in its own right as a separate piece of art, the cinematic version lost some of the ambiguity in my opinion).
When combining this with Heather Swanson’s articles on the omnipresence, the natural imperative of symbiosis and the monstrous effect of biological disruption, it is clear that Annihilation may have more to do with climate change than one would suspect at first. I claim that this novel is a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian themes of alienating and incomprehensible Otherness existing at the periphery of humanity’s line of vision, and humanity’s endeavour to expand knowledge into that periphery leading to a confrontation with horrors that are too far removed to be comprehended and form an active threat to the protagonist’s life and sanity and to human civilisation in general. More specifically while Lovecraft’s work often seems to have cautionary implications about the expansions of human knowledge (some of which undoubtedly originated from his deeply xenophobic worldview) and some of those themes are also present in Annihilation, there are other themes which could be seen as to cancel or at least mitigate the cautionary Lovecraftian theme of ‘turn back, some things are not meant for you, somethings are better left undiscovered.’ This being the theme of all-encompassing symbiosis (as mentioned by Swanson), the butterfly effect of disruption, and the in-story implication that the border is expanding.
In other words, while the expedition into Area X could be seen as following the Lovecraftian theme of Mankind foolishly trying to expand their knowledge into an area of existence that should not be known by humans because the horrors and incomprehensibilities that await are incompatible with human understanding and human life, the novel illustrates that ‘turning back’ is not an option. Since nature is so intertwined, the incomprehensible mysteries that lie inside the borders of Area X may have already spread beyond it, may already have altered life outside the border. Furthermore, given that it is revealed that the border is expanding, humanity cannot turn away and let Area X be that anomaly on the periphery better not thought about, better not investigated, because whatever is going in there, it is slowly spreading and it might soon devour the entire world.
In conclusion: VanderMeer uses typical Lovecraftian themes and imagery of incomprehensible and indescribable mystery, but to slightly different ends and with slightly different implications. While the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft seemed to warn against the reckless expansion of human knowledge to detriment of those involved and ultimately the human race itself, VanderMeer’s Annihilation seems to imply that (in the Anthropocene) the incomprehensible is not just slumbering at the bottom of the ocean or some other remote area, It is already nestled well within our own habitats, is already spreading faster than we think and may slowly and gradually devour our world to the point that one day we might find ourselves living somewhere we can no longer recognise or even understand. So maybe we have no other choice than to face the incomprehensible Other head on and hope that someday we will be able to cope with its existence.