Information and Annihilation

Information and Annihilation

If the hunt for knowledge courts destruction, the attainment of knowledge damns the seekers. Annihilation’s unreal geography and story is shaped by information. The search for it, the lack of it, and the fraught circumstances by which it is attained catalyzes revelations of self and humanity which gives the book mortal urgency.

Annihilation was written by Jeff Vandermeer and is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy. It is a first-person narrative of a biologist journeying into the mysterious Area X, a dangerous, Edenic landscape left alone by humanity. The eleven expeditions before had all died through strange ways— mass suicide, group murder, cancer and forgetfulness. The twelfth expedition continues their objective to map and understand the land while trying to retain their grip on reality.

As always, this is not a review. There may be spoilers for those who haven’t read the story. If you would like to know why I take this stance, please see this post. Otherwise, away we go.

Information plays multiple roles in Annihilation:

  1. The search for it drives the story. The point of the expeditions is to understand Area X, what happened to the biologist’s husband is another driving force, and intellectual curiosity is the third force.
  2. It raises the stakes. Knowing something may keep everyone alive, not knowing may kill them.
  3. It reveals characters’ true motivations, who they are, etc.
  4. It heightens the impact of the key scenes. The slow reveal both deepens the emotional stakes of the story and sustains tension.

The story begins by establishing information that is to be destroyed and rebuilt a hundred times over the course of the narrative. The first sentence is a perfect example:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.

The tower is the locus of the story’s physical and psychological landscape. Its origins and purposes are unknown, it may not even be a tower, and it may not have even been built. The factual details of the tower don’t fit the common understanding of human-made architecture, but it doesn’t fit that it was naturally formed either. As readers learn more about the tower and what’s in it, their certainty of what is real and what isn’t is shaken.

For example, the meaning of the word, annihilation, in the novel. (Spoilers ahead). We learn, in order:

  1. Psychologist hypnotized the expedition members. They knew and accepted it because it was a condition of going into Area X to keep their minds safe.
  2. The psychologist also hypnotized them to react to key phrases, which they didn’t agree to.
  3. The psychologist, upon her death, screams, “Annihilation! Annihilation! Annihilation!” at the protagonist.
  4. Annihilation was supposed to make the hypnotized subject commit suicide.

Pay attention to the way this information is ordered:

  1. Establishes normalcy and trust. This is supposed to happen.
  2. Breaks trust. Unsettles normalcy. Questions arise: did the government tell the psychologist to do this? Is the area contaminating her mind?
  3. Unsettles further. Is the psychologist insane? What key word is this?
  4. Holy Shit factor. Nuff said.

The order of the information pulls the reader forward without leaving them lost, and information is intentionally left out so that implications sweeten left unsaid.

As a sci-fi novel, Annihilation walks the tightrope of giving technical relevant information without over explaining and giving emotional meaning that makes that information relevant without making it a footnote in the narrative. And that’s what great sci-fi does: it gives emotional meaning. Emotional meaning is the factor that makes something— a person, a thing, event, or time— important to you. And what’s important to you is not necessarily important to someone else, of course. But, universally important things like love, fear, death, birth, and sex are hardwired in our brains to have meaning. This predisposition to universally significant things is used in Annihilation in a twin push-pull. Love fuels the novel on a personal level: the love of exploration, the seeking of knowledge and unknown, and the meaning the expedition had to the biologist’s husband. Fear and death give it urgency: the fear of the unknown, of others, of a grander scheme, of death. And the knowledge of love and death is parceled out in bits of information throughout the novel. A key word by the psychologist, the journal of the biologist’s husband, the cells under a microscope, and each new deadly discovery leaps the story forward to a brilliant conclusion.

While the article is not a review of the book, I do strongly encourage others to read more of Jeff Vandermeer’s stuff. He co-edited the Big Book of Science Fiction with his wife, Ann Vandermeer, which I’ve read and have analyzed a few of its stories. It’s become increasingly rare for me to find authors whose writings I discover and then relentlessly chase down, and he’s one of them. Check them out!

 

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