Beneath the Surface: Jeff VanderMeer on ‘Annihilation’

A few months ago, we talked with World Fantasy Award–winning writer and editor Jeff VanderMeer about Wonderbook, his illustrated guidebook for creative writers, and he told us a little about his forthcoming work of fiction, the Southern Reach Trilogy. The story, he said, was fundamentally “about how people react when they come up against the truly inexplicable and about our relationship to nature.”

The first in this three-volume work, Annihilation, is now in the hands of readers, whom it plunges headlong into a tale that lives somewhere between a Conradian suspense and adventure, eerie horror, and a postmodern investigation into questions of  identity and self-knowledge. Unfolding in lushly described natural environment, it follows a biologist assigned to a team who have volunteered to investigate the secrets of an uncanny coastal region known only as “Area X.” And while Area X has terrors lying in wait for the biologist and her colleagues, as dissension, suspicion, and secrets quickly take their toll, the real challenges — and horrors — the biologist must face prove to come from within.

The second and third volumes in this quick-release trilogy — Authority and Acceptance — follow later this year, so readers won’t have to wait long to follow VanderMeer’s labyrinth to the center. But believe me, you don’t want to hear any spoilers. So in a recent email conversation with the novelist, we confined ourselves to the events of the first volume, which is packed with plenty of surprises all on its own. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Annihilation begins with an adventure-story scenario that echoes with the memory of dozens of classic novels, pulp stories, and films:  a team of four women, each an expert in a separate discipline, are deposited in the mysterious wilderness of “Area X,” armed and with the mission to explore and report. (Then you drop characters, and readers, down a succession of rabbit holes.) Did you have particular fictional models in your mind, an archetypal expedition into the jungle? Do you enjoy reading adventure stories?

Jeff VanderMeer: The opening more or less wrote itself, and I didn’t really have a literary antecedent in mind — perhaps because the setting is such a real place to me. But I’ve always liked expeditions into the unknown, and so perhaps I was thinking on some subconscious level of some of Borges’s metaphysical expeditions and of the sedimentary layer of childhood reading in various pulp magazines and anthologies of similar scenarios. If so, it was all mulched up and crushed together in such a way as to be indecipherable to me as influence. Multiple readings of Kafka, the nature poetry of Patiann Rogers, and Leena Krohn’s short novel Tainaron certainly were useful on a craft level — and J. G. Ballard’s a master of making space and time compress or expand in reader’s minds, and there are moments in Annihilation where something I learned from Ballard helped me create certain effects.

BNR: The “biologist” — as we come to know her — who narrates the story has both the damaged stoicism of the hard-boiled hero and a sensitivity to the natural world that bespeaks something very different.  Things go very badly for the “team” — is her isolation from them something that you see as a strength, or is she the most vulnerable of them all?

JV: Is she damaged or is the world around her outside of Area X damaged? That’s the question I hoped to raise, to some extent. We’re so over-programmed to interact, especially in the age of social media, that I’ve seen people who don’t want smartphones castigated as somehow deviant. In such an environment, solitude is a rare experience, and perhaps we should value it more — value it in the way the biologist does, who surely knows herself better than I know myself. Not to mention, every day we walk by weeds in the pavement using quantum mechanics to enhance photosynthesis and worms in the soil whose senses far outstrip our own and our tech, in certain aspects. As to whether she’s vulnerable or not — it’s a very good question. I think she is, and ultimately that is a strength. She makes herself vulnerable, is willing to take that risk with the natural world in a way she doesn’t with people.

BNR: For all its menace in the story, the coastal wetland of Area X is a beautiful environment — you offer the sense that though it’s replete with terrible mysteries, it’s also got a sort of organic unity of its own. And much of the portraiture of the landscape and wildlife is done with obvious affection. It seems at least superficially a Floridian landscape — did you base it on a particular place in your home state?

JV: There’s a fourteen-mile hike I do out at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in North Florida, and the entire novel takes place within that expanse, even though Annihilation is the kind of novel where I don’t name where they are, in terms of where it is on earth. There’s a kind of useful distance created that’s similar to when you base a character on someone you know but it’s not really that person, that’s just the catalyst for creating the character. Still, there’s not a physical description in the novel that isn’t something I’ve seen while hiking. I was even charged by a wild boar once, although in the novel something much stranger happens than what happened to me in real life. I do find it beautiful — I wouldn’t trade it for any place in the world.

BNR: Annihilation shares with some of your earlier work a central and rather unsettling concern with the question of how we know that we are really “us” inside — and what’s most interesting in this novel is that there are agencies, both human and inhuman, that look to be trying to do the driving for your main character. Do you see this kind of threat to the unitary self as a major theme in your novels?

JV: Yes, I do, and the juxtaposition is deliberate. Clearly, Annihilation charts the extremes, but to some extent we’re all constrained by “isms” and systems we live within, all affected by them. So this just makes manifest what is often a steady pulsing truth beneath the surface anyway. What I’m interested in charting are the ways in which people deal with these kinds of pressures, no matter where they originate. I said somewhere else that in the face of things like global warming the key to our survival is to be able to envision the world without us in it — and in a sense acts of imagination are required regarding preservation of the self, too.

BNR: Hypnotism plays an important role in the story — an idea that lends an almost premodern quality to that part of Annihilation but that you deploy to singular effect by making it unclear just how far its influence has spread. How did you decide to include it as an aspect of the story — and what does it imply about our sense of free will?

JV: In the second and third novels it becomes clear that there’s a great deal of conditioning behind the hypnosis, and selection of individuals with at least some initial impulse to obey the mission statement of the Southern Reach, so it in a way becomes an even more troubling question. It might seem a little out there, but with social media in particular you see mind viruses not particularly different from hypnotic suggestion spreading at an accelerated rate. We take in received ideas and lies every day and spout them out again because we live in an age in which the lines between fact and fiction, expertise and ignorance, have been irrevocably blurred. It’s not that far from someone suddenly taking up some idea as their own and outright hypnotism. A skilled e-magician can induce any number of e-effects. So although it’s expressed as hypnosis, the idea of suggestibility is key to how our society often works.

BNR: The shadow of otherworldly forces permeates this novel, but it quickly becomes apparent that singularly human mysteries are driving many of the events of the story — in particular the work of the agency of the Southern Reach, and the way it has burdened the expedition with some very strange preparations and misdirections. Were you deliberately setting out to mingle a conspiracy story with something more traditionally science fictional?  Is either term satisfying to you?

JV: Whether we admit it or not, at the very least inefficiency and superstition play a fairly large role in our world. I can’t tell you the number of times in day jobs that I’ve seen major decisions made on whims, because someone had a crush on someone else, or for other reasons that have nothing to do with logic. I’ve also seen major corporations and government agencies enact policies based on codifying worst practices just because a particular project that should have imploded did not implode, without further analysis. So the answer is just that nothing in the Southern Reach novels in that regard is different than what I’ve directly observed. It becomes not even a matter of conspiracy so much as an Agreement to Mutually Pretend that then either devolves naturally or some gifted bullshit artist comes along and deliberately manipulates the narrative. In the Southern Reach trilogy, those systems come up against a System that is so completely different that there isn’t a single common point of reference.

BNR: Overarchingly, there is the sense in this book of a puzzle laid out for the reader, one that requires careful attention to obliquely rendered clues. Do you see it that way? Will there be a solution in future volumes?

JV: The series does not end with a miniature polar bear inside a snow globe that’s on a character’s desk that led to a dream the character had which is the story the reader or viewer has been experiencing. I’m forever in favor of leaving some vistas unexplored, but I’m also a fan of delivering on a promise. I don’t think it’ll play out the way readers may expect, but there are answers in the second and third book that should satisfy.

BNR: Annihilation restricts itself to the point of view of the biologist, as she struggles to survive and make sense of what she finds as a result of the “expedition.” Will the next volume continue her story?

JV: I can confirm that readers will learn more about the biologist at some point, but the second book is an expedition into the Southern Reach, through the viewpoint of John Rodriguez, the newly appointed director of the agency. I can also confirm that one thousand white rabbits play a role, and that what has once been shelved may suddenly be un-shelved in dramatic fashion. Perhaps that’s cryptic, but isn’t that part of the fun of getting involved with a series like this one?

BNR: The title of the book comes from a sequence I found the most chilling in the entire book. Did you have that moment in mind from the early stages?

JV: Perhaps the most unsettling thing for me is I don’t remember writing that sequence. I had bad bronchitis while writing Annihilation, and although I would review the day’s writing, some mornings I would just wake up and write while still half asleep. That morning I woke with the sound of seagulls in my head and the smell of sea salt, and a vision of the lighthouse, and I just sat down at the computer and wrote the scene. Although a lot of things changed in the revision process, that scene remained largely the same.

BNR: Do you ever scare yourself with your writing?

JV: It’s really peculiar — Annihilation is, on an autobiographical level, a love song to a place I know so well, and thus nothing in it really scared me, except the initial vision of what was in the tunnel. But I will tell you that while writing Authority, I continually felt as if things were peering out at me from the text, and more than once I had to step away and stop writing. And then while writing Acceptance I can’t even describe the experience, but it was like somehow from on high seeing everything playing out at once and being filled with a kind of love toward the characters as they struggled to do their best in impossible situations. This series is personal to me, and I’m fiercely protective of the people in it.