Of Mice, Men, and Monsters: Beyond Science and into the Psyche

I finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in two days, because over the single night that I was reading it, I was afraid of what my imagination would do with the tools VanderMeer gave me.

Annihilation is the first novel in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. The second novel, Authority, was released three weeks ago and has already cracked the New York Times bestseller list. In the Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer has created a speculative world of horror, science fiction, and psychological thrills.

Annihilation is told from the perspective of “the biologist,” an unnamed woman who comes to consciousness within “Area X,” having been led inside under hypnosis by her expedition leader. The biologist has chosen to take part in the government’s twelfth mission to enter Area X and discover its secrets. Through the biologist’s internal monologue and interactions with her fellow explorers, the reader learns about her troubled past and Area X’s secrets. Area X, VanderMeer’s creation, is a mysterious stretch of coastline located in North America that was abandoned several years ago after an indeterminate “event”. The government now controls the outskirts of Area X’s obscure border and the strange wildlife within it.

All previous missions have failed to unearth Area X’s secrets. The first mission returned with reports of an Eden-like paradise. All following missions ended either in mass suicides or murders within Area X’s borders. From these failed missions, a handful of survivors were able to escape from their suicidal or murderous team members and return to the outside world—but only as shadows of their former selves. These “survivors” quickly died of cancer.

The newest expedition is composed of four members: the aforementioned biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. Given the past suicides, murders, and mental trauma of the survivors, the biologist believes that Area X psychologically unhinges any human that enters it.

The previous failed missions were considered psychologically contaminated by Area X. But after the biologist enters Area X, the possibility of paranormal contamination becomes hard to ignore. Are the strange creatures of Area X and its uneasy undercurrent symptoms of psychological stress, or something more sinister? As the four explorers venture farther into Area X, VanderMeer begins to draw taut their relationships, the porous logic of Area X, and the reader’s nerves. Overall, the reader is left with an amalgamation of horror and science fiction that doubles as a psychological thriller—depending on whether you trust the biologist’s account of Area X.

Annihilation uses a speculative trope similar to that used in J.J. Abram’s television series, Lost. Both Lost and Annihilation contain elements of psychological drama and science fiction within an isolated pressure cooker – Area X or “the island”. Both act as an arena for a tug-of-war between the psychological and the supernatural. Are the mysterious events that take place in these isolated locations the results of coincidence, overactive imagination, scientific anomaly, or something more sinister? The underlying question posed by this trope is: is the arena itself paranormal, or does it evoke paranoid perceptions?

The biologist’s speculations on Area X and her colleagues are ample kindling for Annihilation’s psychological elements. The reader watches the biologist watch her team members, Area X, and herself. Her personality is both scientific and instinctive.

The members of the expedition are all unnamed scientists, referred to only by their occupation. The surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychologist are all driven by a cold scientific rationale. Their insensitive scientific attitude drives them further into Area X’s clutches and ultimately results in their failure to understand or survive it. Only the biologist, who uses her gut instinct as well as her scientific reasoning, survives.

The expedition’s failure is VanderMeer’s way of exposing science’s flaws in an inscrutable natural world. In a recent interview with Brian Slattery, VanderMeer said: “Take, for example, the recent finding that mice are more frightened of men than women because of their smell, and thus the research using mice may have been skewed for many decades. It’s the kind of absurdity that crops up all the time, and yet our central narrative continues to be one focusing on efficiency and progress.”

In Annihilation, VanderMeer explores the paradox of scientific reliance in a world we do not fully understand. Area X exists in the tide-pools and stagnant water that the biologist studies; in the random movements of minnows, the stillness of daytime crickets, the twitch of the water bug, and the insoluble complexity of ecosystems. Through speculative fiction, Annihilation shows us that in the face of nature, a force beyond our full comprehension, science cannot reign—thus allowing speculative fiction. The explorers in Annihilation are believers in science subjected to the raw mystery of nature in Area X, and are unwillingly unhinged by it.

-Contributed by Helen Picard

Brian Slattery. “The Big Pivot: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer on Authority”. Tor.com. 8 May 2014. Web. 27 May 2014.


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