This Will Destroy You: Absurdism in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

Article by Brandon H. Bell.

Purchase Annihilation (the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy) here.

“John Rodriguez, if you come with me, I won’t be able to spare you. You’ll have to see everything. Your eyes will have to be open.” —Jeff Vandermeer, Acceptance

Many articles have been written that address the influences and meaning of the Southern Reach Trilogy. It is a modern work of weird fiction inspired by the stories anthologized in The Weird. It is a speculative exploration that follows after works like Solaris and Roadside Picnic. It is a surreal journey across ecological collapse, Kafkaesque spy & office labyrinths, and a group of personal and regional histories united by an encounter with the unknown. I suggest the Trilogy is moreover a work that uses genre tropes and literary devices to explore absurdism. The Trilogy’s greatest achievement is in an ultimate refusal to transcend the human condition while offering a path forward composed of acceptance of reality and the individual’s place therein.

Let’s see if that assertion makes sense.

Annihilation

“Is this the only beauty here?

And is this beauty—

torn to shreds by the

lurking schismatists?”

—William Carlos Williams, Patterson

While reading Annihilation I was on several occasions reminded of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. We are introduced to the central trope utilized by the trilogy, that of the unnatural place, the genius loci. Another article has suggested cartography as a tool the books use to facilitate the reader’s encounter with the weird. Like The Willows, the trilogy has something to say about nature, humanity’s place therein, and the disposition of humanity within nature. That some will read these books and conclude an alien or supernatural or trans-dimensional explanation for Area X is ancillary to a discussion of its import and effect. VanderMeer admirably does not shirk from the fantastic and offers enough nuance in what the characters eventually come to learn or experience that what is happening may certainly be interpreted through several different lenses ranging across a broad spectrum of rational to irrational, naturalistic to supernatural.

This is satisfying to the reader of fantastic fiction. If we are reading a monster story, give us monsters.

VanderMeer presents, in Annihilation, a trek into a place that is other-than-natural, Though perhaps no more so than the places you and I inhabit.

The reader may cull various subtexts while the ultimate internal reality of the narrative does not devolve into the merely allegorical. In this approach, I’m reminded of another genre novel, Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game. Barker made a point of using a single trope in his novel, and then wielded it like a samurai sword. This, too, is the path VanderMeer took with his story and his understanding of genre execution and his use of the given trope is important to keep in mind. It would be easy to misunderstand and take this talk about absurdity to imply that the Trilogy is, after all, an allegory.

That would be a mistake.

Annihilation functions as an effective absurdist text, when taken as a part of the whole, because it presents its characters as real folks encountering the absurd. Annihilation‘s final, phantasmagoric section may read like a sequence of transcendent communion and escape from the human condition. It isn’t, but it could read that way as a stand-alone novel.

The penultimate question addressed by an absurdist text is suicide. Is life worth living? Do we surrender to what Camus called an act of elusion and make a leap into faith? Do we confront the absurdity and decide that continued existence is not worth the price of that confrontation? Or is it possible to enter into that confrontation with the absurd, to see it clearly, or as clearly as we are capable, to accept the blunt reality thereof, and continue on in full acknowledgement and acceptance? That’s the final question.

Area X destroys you. Area X will not abide a ‘you’ that identifies as more than a function. Even then: it will destroy you.

But that is a sort of eluding. Area X is the devil and we are angels that might, through our wits, science, prescience, through our authority… find a way to subvert it. To understand it. To believe that Area X will destroy you is to believe Area X may be encapsulated within your understanding at least as a series of effects and outcomes to those who enter it. Area X may destroy you, but it does so without regard for you as an object apart from the ecology in which functions are performed that we identify as ‘destroy’ and ‘transform’ but could in fact as easily be ‘communicate,’ ‘assimilate,’ or ‘yellow.’ Area X isn’t Area X, and ‘you’ are an illusion born of the inevitable elusion you have committed via faith in your own verisimilitude.

It is the biologist who makes the furthest, most successful journey into this unknown, and she does so through an intense, perhaps spectrum-ish obsession with the details of flora and fauna and the interactions of the component parts of Area X. She is not other-than to that fauna. She is a part of that ecology. Assimilation is not a goal for the Biologist, but a methodology.

Does the Biologist believe she can understand Area X? Or does she come to accept her place within it, while still striving for more light, even if it means destruction or transformation?

Annihilation suggests the path forward that the actors in Authority, by their disposition, are not capable of comprehending. Area X won’t just destroy you, but will indelibly transform you. And awareness of Area X equals a breach of sorts. You are already coming undone. You are being destroyed. And your attempts to define, to master, to codify—both yourself and Area X— hasten your demise. Because Area X is not doing any of these things. Communication between sentient beings is a biological stack overflow. Sentience is a stack overflow. Everything that follows is improperly codified and failing.

But maybe there is a way out of Area X. Maybe one might understand one’s way out of the absurd.

Authority

“A man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses.” —Albert Camus

Camus discusses, in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, the idea that all thought is anthropomorphic, and observes that if we found the universe to experience and emote like we do, we’d find reconciliation therein.

Area X does not love and suffer as we do.

In the second book of the trilogy, we endeavor along with Control, aka John Rodriguez, to journey into the Southern Reach bureaucracy in the pursuit of understanding. Is there understanding to be found at journey’s end in Authority, or the final book, Acceptance? There is, I’d assert, but it is an understanding that is by its nature interstitial. Not in that genre-chic, weird-but-untraditional way the word is often applied, but in the sense that absurdity is the currency we are trading herein and absurdity does not live unto Area X or the Southern Reach, or within any character or set of characters, but in the frission of the encounters between all of the above.

It is informative that the Reach, a human institution, is ultimately as unknowable to Control as Area X. Intelligence of any kind, including that lurking behind the eyes of your coworkers and bar-friends, remains a thing we can know only at a remove. The absurd, as is understanding within Area X (and the Southern Reach), is a constant and ceaseless striving. We find no faith. That is philosophical suicide. We find no ultimate science that describes all. The truths that we do find are predators to us. They devour us. As Control travels deeper into the labyrinth of the Southern Reach, never arriving where he imagined he’d go, in contrast to the Biologist, he learns to value himself apart from his function. To allow room for John Rodriguez, even if he only has the simplest totems to hint at the meaning of the man he presumes to be.

The Southern Reach assigns roles, into which the various characters lose themselves. It is absurd because there are only individuals maintaining this institution, themselves in the process of being devoured by their roles.

At the end of the search, it might be god that is found. Or something hyper-object-vast that might as well be called god. It may seem a stretch that is not hinted at in the narrative, but when taken as an explication of the absurd, we must consider that most seekers faced with absurdity do not conclude that life is not worth living. They find grace. Faith.

To the pessimist philosopher, those folks give in to the trap of biology wrapped around the inadvertent horror-show of our own sentience. To she who would face the absurd, both the pessimistic conclusion that merits suicide and the faith that necessitates a god constitute elusion. They’ve dropped anchor. Absurdity proved too much to face.

This will destroy you, if you don’t destroy yourself. And make no mistake, grace is as deadly as self-immolation.

The various scientists and administrators (the Whitby’s and Lowry’s of the organization), with their faith in the capacity to understand, prove the premise.

This is a delicate point. It is not anti-science, not even anti-god. It’s how you come to the Truth that you allow yourself that is problematic. Science as methodology is fine. Something that you could call god might exist. But you erected a truth with a capital T so you didn’t have to stare into a many-eyed abyss that looked more and more like yourself—

The point is not a triumphalist existentialism.

That too, is a suicide of sorts. Deification of subjective knowing over objective supposition. The point is to keep your both your proverbial and actual eyes open. To consider not just one’s experience, but the wider ecology in which a ‘you’ that may be a fundamentally flawed concept functions. To be John Rodriguez, following Ghost Bird _down_ into a thing they’ve agreed to call a tower. To see clearly. To not look away. To not give into these temptations of faith and Truth. Identity as triangulation, rather than foundation.

And: you will still be destroyed, even if you make it past these temptations. There is a greater temptation for some. The idea of understanding. An understanding that surpasses the symbols your mind wishes to place upon everything you see. Pre-definitions and types.

The truths you find will act as predators to the prey of yourself. Everything is provisional. Everything is deadly. And any illumination you might discover comes in interaction with this environment that is toxic to you.

Area X sounds like a silly sci-fi movie, intentionally so, because something that so precisely mimics reality via the tropes of a SFnal adventure should go all the way into the cheesiest extents of our modern mythologies. Appropriation. The bastard conceptual child of Area 51 and Planet X. Like a particularly apt prop that wandered out of the cinematic version of Naked Lunch, VanderMeer offers a cell phone that may scuttle about like a bug as an emblem of these themes.

Most of our seekers are annihilated in Area X, mimicking the state of the natural world, or caught in the Byzantine halls of the Southern Reach, mimicking human institutions that serve Truths of one kind or another, but a few travel beyond. They see fit to continue.

The seeker who travels past suicide (actual or philosophical) and elusion, as both the Biologist and John Rodriguez do, seeks confrontation with the absurd.

They seek, within themselves—

Acceptance

“If we’re still alive

My regrets are few

If my life is mine

What shouldn’t I do?

I get wherever I’m going

I get whatever I need

While my blood’s still flowing

And my heart’s still

Beating like a hammer”

—Metric, Help, I’m Alive

In the third book of the trilogy we follow an additional character more closely, someone who has been on the periphery throughout the narrative of the prior books. And this time we are suggested not the binary approaches to the absurd, authority and acceptance, knowing and assimilation, offered by Control and the Biologist, but rather the simple quest to participate in the life into which she was born, no matter how weird the landscape of it may have become. No matter the cost of that participation. No matter the rewards.

The question we edge toward… must we die of our state, or may we live with it? Is it possible to reconcile ourselves to our state in nature, which is that of absurdity?

Destroy nostalgia. Yes, we struggle with it but it can be done. There is a point to this long storyline with Saul the lighthouse keeper, both satisfying with a character at ground zero, and frustrating as a figure from the past that must be given up. Nostalgia is a cruel word when love is involved. But okay, letting go is necessitated by this existence. There is no hope in this world. That does not mean that nihilism is our ultimate nature, rather that the world promises nothing, and keeps no promises you mistakenly perceived.

It remains possible to surrender hope, and live in freedom.

The Director does not succeed for most of the narrative to surrender hope. She keeps holding on, holding out. Perhaps more than anyone else she personifies the attempt to encompass Area X intellectually. Along the way, she comes to see clearly those whom she used, hurt, manipulated, left behind. It is also clear that in turn others used her. Absurdity. We are tools. We are tooled. We use others in kind. But there is real friendship, human warmth, honesty. Even mercy. The Director proceeds into Area X less so for understanding, but because this is her homeland. This is where she belongs. She will not be kept from her life. Understanding be damned. Determination as methodology? It proves as viable as the pathologies of the Biologist or Control.

Camus writes about living without appeal. In the three central characters of the Southern Reach Trilogy we are presented with pilgrims approaching absurdity and the unknown initially via various justifications. A lost husband. A family tradition and honor, a lost home, family, friend. Circumstance tears these appeals away until each pilgrim comes to their individual moment of stark confrontation and they move past the moment when so many would fall prey to philosophical or actual destruction. There is no faith that sustains, no rationalization that encompasses the path forward, but forward they proceed, into the great maw of Area X. They know they will be destroyed. It is the act of continuing and the state of honesty with one’s self that matters.

Readers of the trilogy may wonder about Ghost Bird and Grace. Without Ghost Bird the reader would have to decide independently about the Biologists fate. With her insight we perceive the seeker transformed, but still seeking. In Grace, I’d suggest we find a character preserved by simple love, but stranded by that devotion. Deference is a choice like any other.

Transformation does not promise other-than-what-we-already-are. Only a different part of an ever-altering continuum. We recognize the fallacy of despairing of the unknowable nature of what lies ahead, as though we’ve fully encompassed that behind us. We understand the naturalness of it. We understand it as other-than-transcendence. And likewise I will posit John and the Director’s final moments—Gloria’s final moments—as not transcendent, but naturalistic. This, too, is the nature of the absurd.

Stumbling into unknowable Area X, these three proceeded with eyes clear. They came ready to deny the shorthand their own minds might offer and to surpass the human impulses to retain a hope they never possessed, or to lapse into a mysticism that replaces experience with comforting generalizations and suppositions.

Finding out what it means was never the point. It was always about the attempt to understand. No beliefs, only practices. Always: the methodology. Proceeding from function is functional, but keeps perceptions purely ‘in system’ if also leading to something that might look like transcendence from without. Releasing authority and holding true to a shorthand of identity allows the seeker a mode that is functional until processes occur leading to dissolution. If there is a ‘best’ approach to the absurd that is modeled in VanderMeer’s books, it is the steady acceptance that we have stumbled into this place, nostalgic for a homeland that does not exist any more than the paradise that we long to reach… that we are alone, fundamentally misplaced in the supernatural spacetime of sentient existence, fully cognizant of the eternal death that hangs above us… and yet free, assured, capable of what we must be, capable of what we must do. And the musts at our core are indescribable processes we might call ‘love’ or ‘hate’ and ‘kindness’ or ‘cruelty’ and ‘creation’ or ‘destruction.’ This, too, is absurdity.

And this is what I found in Area X and the Southern Reach.

Article by Brandon H. Bell.

Purchase Annihilation (the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy) here.

One response to “This Will Destroy You: Absurdism in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

  1. Nihilism – the reasons to not exist.
    Annihilation – the act of becoming non existent.
    The most powerful beings do not destroy, they uncreate. [OL first season orginal.]

    I have not heard of this trilogy. I hope to catch up on contemporary horror fiction writing and writers.

    One of the most Lovecraftian movies I ever saw was “The Grave Yard Shift.” I would have added a few things like missing people, flapping of enormous membranous vans in the night, but otherwise it has the mood that is so important that Lovecraft would cultivate in his stories, but with some character development, and one woman in the cast. I found it better than the original short story by Steven King. The opening says it all with the flooded cemetery.

    You don’t need to mention any creature to make it so, just the invoking of the mood and feeling is enough. I think some forget this. For example when August Derleth tried his hand at writing in the Mythos, it fell flat and was more like pedestrian pastiche. Lovecraft himself said as much. However Auggie was excellent at his westerns and other writings which Grandpa Theobald congratulated him on also.

    Great work guys and gals.

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