Annihilation: SF, universalist discourses, and the posthuman era
Incredibly, a human face
seemed to be rising out of the earth.
There is a debate about when Science Fiction (Sci-fi, or SF as a more or less definable genre) began. Some would say in the work of Lucian, A True Story, written in the 2nd century AD, or from Somnium, a novel written in 1608 in Latin by Johannes Kepler. Adam Roberts (2018) argues that the systematic sensibility of SF as a genre should be seen to have emerged during the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century during which time the critique of religious authority has relaxed censorship against progressive scientific thinking. The gap of over a millennium between the Greek prototype and the Reformation re-emergence of SF is the function of scientific inquiry shifting to protestant countries where “the sort of speculation that could be perceived as contrary to biblical revelation could be undertaken with more (although not total) freedom.”
The replacement of magical or supernatural by technological tropes is a core feature of SF, even if, as Roberts observes, “some Catholic strand in science fiction... is present in the vast majority of good SF, whether written by Catholic authors or not.” Indeed, as a universalist discourse, Christianism, with its coterie of angels and demons recodifiable into other tropes of extraterrestrial or extra-human otherness, can even be said to provide an Ur-form not just for SF but for many narrative genres like the Gothic or Horror as well. As Darko Suvin (1979), a major historian and theoretician of the genre, expresses it:
Basically, SF is a developed oxymoron, a realistic irreality, with humanized nonhumans, this-worldly Other Worlds, and so forth. Which means that it is—potentially—the space of a potent estrangement, validated by the pathos and prestige of the basic cognitive norms of our times.
Within the ambit of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first novel of his Southern Reach Trilogy (Authority and Acceptance being the second and third) published in 2014 and adapted for film in 2018 with Natalie Portman in the lead role, it can be argued that several modes of universalisms intersect to push a supposedly not-really so Pop Culture hybrid subgenre of SF called the “New Weird” into the New York Times Bestseller list and place it on the stage of globally recognized novels.
Before the success of his trilogy, VanderMeer said in an interview that he had “worked as an agent, as a publicist. I worked in a bookstore. I'd seen the book culture from all the different points of view you can.” The difficulty in breaking through the Young Adult SF and Fantasy fiction market defined by major successes like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Hunger Games or Twilight with a tale without the usual triumphant ending or redemption at the end was immense. His practical experience in and knowledge of the “communications circuit” in Book history (Robert Darnton 1982) allowed him to navigate the legal and commercial intricacies of the network of the American publishing industry.
To see the subject as a whole, it might be useful to propose a general model for analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society. To be sure, conditions have varied so much from place to place and from time to time since the invention of movable type, that it would be vain to expect the biography of every book to conform to the same pattern. But printed books generally pass through roughly the same life cycle. It could be described as a communications circuit that runs from the author to the publisher (if the bookseller does not assume that role), the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader. The reader completes the circuit, because he influences the author both before and after the act of composition.
Although the historical development of SF as a genre traces itself back to Europe (if we disregard the SF “ancient aliens” reading of Indian or other ancient epics), the literary conditions there defined by the polarization between high and Mass Culture in the early 20th century have disfavoured SF’s rise as a major novelistic hybrid genre with serious literary import. This is something that even Goethe had realized. In The Routledge Concise History of World Literature, Theo D’Haen narrates: In an 1829 essay on a German translation of Thomas Carlyle's Life of Schiller, and after having mentioned the inevitability of the coming of world literature, Goethe writes that "what suits the masses will spread and will, as we can already see now, give pleasure far and wide ... but what is really worth-while will not be so popular."
As Adam Roberts has remarked, SF in a European country like France could be seen to have reached its heydays with Jules Verne. In general, however, despite the new glamour of SF plots which the Hollywood film industry cross-pollination has conferred on them, SF novels have kept their quasi Mass Culture status and appeal. This is a fact that could be seen to have worked strongly in its favor in terms of dissemination or readership potential, especially in the United States where SF has supposedly seen its Golden Age in the 30s to the 50s with the emergence of canonical greats such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, or Philip K. Dick, an age spurred on by the network of a penny-friendly pulp fiction industry and SF popular review magazines. The establishment of the Hugo Awards in 1953 and the Nebula in 1966 and many others after is major step in the growth of the prestige of the SF genre.
Although the communications circuit is not a universalist discourse or trope in itself, it does provide the material conditions for the universalization of a genre, subgenre, or hybrid genre. This universalization can be seen as the collective effect of the market forces of commercialization, the formation of readership demographic, and the normalization of printed forms that such a relationship must require as a horizon of exchange and expectation. It would be interesting to see how the very notion of genre is the product of such a circuit, producing a “cognitive norm” which can then be transgressed, not without any commercial risk for both writer and publisher, as in the case of VanderMeer’s Annihilation where clear-cut triumphant ends have no typographical place. However, the role of the circuit cannot be over-emphasized as was shown by Mariano Siskind (2012) in the historic development of Magic Realism (both as an aesthetic idiom and as a subgenre of the Novel) and the global success in the publication of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
If the communications circuit is the network in which authorial, lectorial, commercial, legal, spatial, literary, and formal identities are forged and reinforced, it is thus so only because the circuit is the channel upon which the negotiation of cultural values and ideologies—in which society sees itself reflected—is conducted. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the first major specimens of World Literature are of mythic and religious nature, written either in verse or prose: from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Hesiod’s Theogony, the Quran, to the Bible, for example. The birth of the notion of a Weltliteratur in Weimar is perhaps a direct effect of a networked geography, something that was emerging in a quicker pace in 19th century Europe than elsewhere, undergoing the massive phases of the Industrial Revolution and enjoying the high point of European Imperial and Colonial history through which Europe became the metropolitan global center of the flow of goods, bodies, culture, and wealth. The universalizing discourse of religion is a major component of the globalization of literature. Theo D’Haen (2012) cites Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett for whom World Literature is necessarily informed by such religious universalism:
World-literature to Posnett is literature produced in cultures held together by what he calls “religious” or “political” cosmopolitanism. Examples of the former are the Hebrew and Islamic cultures. Examples of the latter are the Greek, or perhaps better Hellenic, and Roman, or perhaps better Latin, cultures. “Between the world-religions of Israel and Islam and the world-cultures of Alexandria and Rome there are, no doubt, very wide differences,” he admits, “yet, though the former reach universality through social bonds of creed and the latter reach universality through the unsocial idea of personal culture, the outcome of both is to rise above old restrictions of place and time, and to render possible a literature which, whether based on Moses or Homer, may best be termed a 'world-literature'.” For Posnett, then, the determining characteristic of such a world-literature is its “severance of literature from defined social groups” or “the universalising of literature.”
The capacity of religious metanarratives to provide the framework for works of World Literature has made them logically indispensable in the constitution of collective historical sense and memory, something which Frank Kermode has underlined in his work on the poetics of fiction, The Sense of an Ending (1967). The notion that the scientific progress of Modernity since the Enlightenment has rendered religious metanarratives marginalized components of the literary imagination in the 20th and 21st century is arguably not quite accurate. The arrival of Science as a universalist discourse of Modernity may be the second major component driving the destiny of a novel or any literary work toward global status, but only because the gaps in the positive knowledge of Science are complemented by the revisions of various mythic idioms made available by a global print culture. God may no longer be there before the Big Bang, or before the first single-celled organisms until the emergence of Homo Sapiens, but Chance alone is not a satisfactory explanation in a formally teleological Narrative that demands a structural grammar of agents, actions, and recipients. The need for an Alpha and an Omega contributes to the unsettling atmosphere of a tale whenever such arch-structures are kept at bay or merely implied by the use of a hanging or unsolved mystery. Thus, despite being at odds with one another, religious and scientific motifs can combine directly or indirectly to produce interesting tales such as Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. The supernatural may no longer be around, or replaced by other beings, or simply left hanging as a question, but the Absurd and the Enigma can only be perceived as the counterpoint of a Universe imagined with meaning and purpose, even if they remain unverifiable components for Science in general. However, the discourse of Science does provide explanatory universalist logics of its own which tease out the unknowns of a Universe full of mysteries, logics which provide other metanarratives that ground the imaginaries of SF worlds.
Such a combination of universalist discourses may not be so obvious at first in VanderMeer’s Annihilation, riding as it does on the theory of panspermia wherein life on Earth was seeded by microscopic life forms from meteorites, an idea made more explicit in the 2018 film adaptation. Although it was kept a mystery in the Trilogy, it could be inferred as an unformulated question concerning the source of the incredible and complex biodiversity on the planet. In the place of a mythic narrative of creation, Annihilation deploys the tropes of evolutionary biology and accelerated genetic mutation happening in the cordoned off region called Area X, an unexplained and growing ecosystem on the Florida coast. Area X seems to be developing into a “pristine wilderness” composed of yet unseen species resulting from a radical horizontal gene transfer between and across all plant and animal species, and not just among closely related kingdoms like bacterial organisms. There is also a hint that inorganic or inanimate elements such as the walls of the “tower” may also be endowed with some sort of living attributes. To Lena, the biologist of the 12th expedition of four women, Area X is an expanding transitional ecosystem which is transforming life’s organizational chart beyond recognition. Faced with the “tower,” which was actually a circular mound on the ground with a small opening that tunnelled underground (reminding us of Odysseus’s Hades and Dante’s Inferno, a metaphor of the Earth as Womb, or the Unconscious), the anthropologist remarked that it was made of “ambiguous” materials. For the biologist who became immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions after inhaling fungal spores, the walls were somehow alive. (Lena: “The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.”) They were covered with colored fungi spreading out and forming written words: “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...” The religious tone is unmistakable.
Lena’s own transformation began right after her spore contamination. She described it as a kind of glow inside her growing and spreading slowly. It was as if it marked the moment of her organic assimilation by Area X, echoing the fungal writing on the tower or tunnel walls which she copied on her notebook: “There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you.” With it, she was gaining extra-human abilities: “I had brought a flashlight but found I could see well enough by the green glow that emanated from my own body.” “The bioluminescence of the words on the wall had intensified, and the glow from my exposed skin seemed to respond in kind, lighting my way.” Her transitional state allowed her to survive her encounter with the ubiquitous moaning creature of Area X, described with almost human-like qualities: “A suggestion of the side of a tortured, pale visage and a great, ponderous bulk behind it.” It had “an almost plaintive keening, calling out to her, “pleading with [her] to return, to see it entire, to acknowledge its existence.”
Going back to the base camp, her new abilities allowed her to survive a gunfight with the military-trained surveyor:
“You’ve come back and you’re not human anymore. You should kill yourself so I don’t have to.” I didn’t like her casual tone.
“I’m as human as you,” I replied. “This is a natural thing,” and realized she wouldn’t understand that I was referring to the brightness. I wanted to say that I was a natural thing, too, but I didn’t know the truth of that—and none of this was helping plead my case anyway.
“Tell me your name!” she screamed. “Tell me your name! Tell me your goddamn fucking name!”
“That won’t make any difference,” I shouted back. “How would that make any difference? I don’t understand why that makes a difference.”
Silence was my answer. She would speak no more. I was a demon, a devil, something she couldn’t understand or had chosen not to. I could feel her coming ever closer, crouching for cover.
But no one really dies in Area X. It seems that the alien ecosystem absorbs everything, recycles everything, and even human consciousness itself seems to get “redistributed” into other forms or bodies, as if it were a field of metamorphoses worthy of Ovid, a new mode of Eternal Life. The fungal writing on the wall apparently confirms this: “That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing...” Area X is capable of re-transcribing genetic material in endless ways, as if it were preparing for its final project: cloning human beings, but in a redesigned structure carrying all the signatures of the ecosystem of Area X. Later expeditions indeed had members returning back home with half of their memories gone, mere doppelgangers of their former selves. All of them, however, die of cancer and organ failure later on, failed prototypes of the genetic lab which was Area X.
In the 2018 film adaptation, this transition is made explicit, beginning with the sudden return of Lena’s husband, who was a part of the 11th expedition to Area X. At the end of the film, the couple met again in the secured facility where they were held by a secret government agency of the Southern Reach. Their eyes glowed with the “shimmer” of Area X, getting re-acquainted as if for the first time, searching for the fragmented memories of their former selves. The Edenic motif is difficult to ignore, as we realize a new Adam and Eve had been reborn on Earth. This meeting marks the beginnings of Homo sapiens 2.0.
Within the fictional universe of Area X’s mutagenic ecosystem, Michel Foucault’s intimation of the limits of the age of “Man” had become a reality:
As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end…..If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.
Even if in the Trilogy there was no surviving replica of Lena’s husband, the concept is clear: Area X is building a new species after Homo sapiens. Its previous prototypes didn’t survive, but later on, many will, including Lena’s “Ghost Bird” (appearing in Acceptance). The dissolution of Homo sapiens 1.0 is dramatized as a lost of self-identity by Lena’s husband, whose journal she reads:
I am walking forever on the path from the border to base camp. It is taking a long time, and I know it will take even longer to get back. There is no one with me. I am all by myself. The trees are not trees the birds are not birds and I am not me but just something that has been walking for a very long time...
In the Trilogy, the universalist discourses of religion and biological science are tied up with the universalizing notion of Humanity as a species, whether under God or under Darwin, or whether under the liberalist or secular form it took after the Renaissance. In Area X, there are no more individual identities as there are no more humanity as we know it today, a humanity steady in its anthropocentric view of the world and history. In a strange revision of the Edenic myth, it is a newly minted humanity or a “Posthumanity” which no longer had dominion over everything, a Posthumanity closer to non-Western ideas of animism.
Despite its darker themes of human dissolution before an unknown force of Nature, VanderMeer’s Trilogy reaffirms the import of these universalizing discourses in the production of literary works which address the global thematic scale of a World Literature grounded on the intersection of concerns beyond race, creed, or nationality. If today such a work of fiction, SF or not, also integrates the current Ecological Emergency as another universalist discourse to bolster its status as a global literary consciousness, it does so in a critical manner such that it redefines the universal itself as that which exceeds Humanity in all its discursive forms. The next evolutionary stage of World Literature will appear only to abdicate its anthropocentric moorings to reaffirm the “World” in it as the only legitimate binding universal located at the end of an all-too-human identity or at the cusp of the radically Other.
D’Haen, Theo. The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. London & NY: Routledge, 2012.
Darnton, Robert. “What is the history of books?” in Daedalus 111(3): 65-83, 1982. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024803. Accessed May 12, 2018.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London & NY: Routledge, 1989.
Mariano Siskind. “The Genres of World Literature: The Case of Magic Realism.” In D’Haen Theo, David Damrosch, & Djelal Kadir, eds. The Routledge Companion to World Literature. London & NY: Routledge, 2012.
Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction, 2nd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a LiteraryGenre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy). NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.