The indispensability of wonder

Jeff VanderMeer: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) Harper Collins. United States

Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance)
Forfatter: Jeff VanderMeer
Forlag: Harper Collins (USA)
Jeff VanderMeer writes reflective and environmentally conscious science fiction. 


In an area on the southwest coast of the United States, there is an area where nothing is quite right. In the center is a lighthouse, which is mirrored by yet another lighthouse on an island a little further north. Around the tower the wilderness extends: It is quiet, there are animals everywhere, and the waves flow peacefully over the elongated beach. The thistles and grass sway in the wind, the gulls scream as they hover in flocks past the lighthouse and continue south.

We are in "Area X", the landscape at the center of Jeff VanderMeer's critically acclaimed science-fiction trilogy from 2014 (the first book will soon be filming).

Confusing border area. A few decades ago, something happened here, though we never know for sure what. It may have been a natural disaster of some kind, but it could also have been an ecological crisis, caused by a factory leak or a state exodus.
periment has gone wrong. Maybe all of it? Or it could be – something that is becoming increasingly obvious as we read – a foreign intelligence that has hardened this scenic coastline.

The area, as it appears in the VanderMeer trilogy, is at least separated from the outside world by a milky white zone, a blend of impenetrable fog and a time portal between "X" and the rest of the world. If you are crossing the zone, there is no common passage you want to go through. In fact, reason may not be maintained when you come out on the other side. Cities are being built and destroyed, wars are raging and falling, animals are being born and resurrected – all at a furious pace and in a chronology that makes no sense to the human brain.

It is as if the place – or perhaps the globe as such – remembers itself before it is to depart at death, so that people are supposed to have their lives passed in the revue before we take the evening.

Not himself. Right at the border of Area X, the Southern Reach research station is located. From here, expeditions have been sent to the armored area (if so er haunted) for decades. The research site's task is to find out what has happened and what is happening, because there is constant development in Area X.

Borne is a plant, the next moment an animal, or a child, a lamp, an anemone or – worst of all – a weapon.

But there are few who survive the expeditions – and those who do, those who return, are radically changed. Many do not live long, and all seem like shadows of their former selves. They do not come across the fog-white border, either, but appear completely elsewhere – often at the door of the family, or perhaps a completely different place they have a close relationship. The emotional life is flat, they are no longer themselves. What has happened to these people?

In the first novel of the trilogy, we follow the eleventh expedition into Area X – and we know as little, or less, than the participants, about what's going to happen. The "linguist," "the biologist," "the anthropologist," and the "chief of the dispatch" – they are all women – do not have common names, but are reduced to their job titles, what they can. This is how, we are told, they will be more difficult to identify for the "enemy" (whoever they are now).

People are copied. It quickly turns out that the place is deadly – the participants disappear one by one, but not in the expected science-fiction way. No, they are rather annexed by the area itself. Not completely different The Invasion of the Body Snatchers people are replaced with a copy of themselves – without knowing when, where, and in what way.

Much is at all uncertain in these three books, though some are eventually explained. The central participant "the biologist" – who plays an important role in all three books – is the only one who has a deeper understanding of the place, of what it is, what it wants us to do, and why it exists at all.

Since this is a kind of suspense story after all, I shouldn't reveal too much, though Annihilation, Authority og Acceptance constitutes an unusual, highly strange and deeply fascinating triology. VanderMeer writes poetic, disturbing and exciting – but first and foremost interesting. Maybe we could call this reflective ecofiction?

Ecofilosophical thinking. A book that, to those degrees, integrates the ongoing environmental crisis in fiction form without illustrating the problem, or warning us of the dangers, is rarely cost. The work transforms the entire problem complex into an independent series of stories that serve as a thought picture of how we are about to change the planet. Our intervention in the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene – from nature to man-made nature – is certainly a very close backdrop.

Prophetic and disturbing phrases are composed of plants. The language is growing, that heals.

The thinking is rooted in the ambiguity that grows along the way – which cannot be separated, but which is rather stitched together during the text. Towards the end of the work is a completely different picture – of elements that usually tend to act separately: nature and culture, man and animals. But also past and future, language and biology.

Organic language. About this last – with one spoiler alert for them will read: The lighthouse keeper in the largest lighthouse is central. One day he sees a light in the grass. When he wants to examine it more closely, he shines a stab. Gradually he becomes another: Something (or someone) grows in him and takes over his person.

Many years later, i Annihilation, one of the participants meets him again in a building called "Anomaly" that looks like a reverse tower. Staircase on staircase, ledge on ledge goes down and down. It is unclear if it is a physical building, as the walls seem to breathe and emit a pulse. Maybe it's a kind of animal, an organic life? Inside the building, the expedition participants notice writing on the walls – living writing. Prophetic and disturbing phrases that are not carved, but composed of plants. The language is growing, that heals. It is the lighthouse keeper who writes, or more precisely, it is something other than him who writes through him.

Gradually we discover that nature is not nature, but not man-made. It is something third, a hybrid, something undefined in the transition between nature and culture. Human DNA appears in plants, and animals look at the expedition with an unmistakable human gaze. Cultural products like diaries seem to grow like organic life, as the language of Anomaly does.

Hybrid Being. In his latest novel Borne – which came this year, that is, two years after Southern Reachtrilogy – this whole problem area is even more focused: From its elongated fable of civilization's finite and human transformation of nature, the author Born written a chamber game. Once again, there are transitional forms involved – but unlike previous novels, it is clear that Bornes world is a post-apocalyptic result of both environmental crises and unfortunate biotechnology experiments.

Rachel, the protagonist of the novel, comes across something she cannot identify – whether it is alive, unclear – but she still feels a care and takes it home with her. "Borne" turns out to be an organic being – which both becomes more and less human as the novel progresses.

It was in the fur of the giant bear Murder Rachel found Borne. Murder is the result of a biotechnological experiment, and rages around the city like another Godzilla While the monster sleeps, Rachel and other food and goodies are found in Murder's fur.

Impossible to categorize. The creature reminds me of Odradek, the small step-like creature in Franz Kafkas A housewife's worries, because there are no existing categories to place it in. It materializes the impossibility of any filing attempt by constantly transforming, changing shape, shape, character and identity. At one moment Borne is a plant, the next an animal, then almost a child. Then the being is suddenly a lamp, an anemone or – worst of all – a weapon.

Things are changing more than we think, and this we must reflect on, says VanderMeer. "There was a secret shape to it all that lived inside us, a map that slowly circulated within our minds like a personal cosmology. This, then, is where I had brought my sea anemone named Borne – into this cocoon, this safe haven, this vast trap. ”

Want to be human. VanderMeer's books belong to a strange genre – new weird is anyone calling it. And precisely the reintroduction of the enigmatic, which we do not understand, is the greatest strength of books. In a world where all imaginable information is available, the riddles and darkness are driven out of existence. But wonder and confusion are needed – yes, to be confronted with the incomprehensible and enigmatic is necessary to think. The link to ecology also merges reflection into how we are destroying the globe.

What does VanderMeer want with its literature? The transitional forms, which cannot be categorized, the strange intermediate states of Area X or the undefined nature of Borne, give us the wonder back. The reflection on what man is about to do with the planet is an important part of this – but the trilogy goes deeper: it wants us to rediscover both ourselves and nature.

We should never be too sure of what we think we know, says VanderMeer. "We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means," as Rachel says Borne.

It's worth remembering.

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