Monday 7 September 2015

The Southern Reach

Jeff VanderMeer, 2014
(August 2015)

Where to begin with this? Let's start by acknowledging that, like Lord of the Rings, this is best considered as a single book that just happens to be published in three volumes. If nothing else it'll help you get you over the hump that is Authority. Difficult Middle Volume syndrome in full effect there, otherwise.

As a whole, however, it's excellent. Annihilation particularly is destined to be a classic. It introduces us to Area X, a weirding of psychogeography that stands in obvious lineage with efforts such as the Five and a Half Minute Hallway, the Cacotopic Stain, and Wink. The genius here is to show it to us through the point of view of the biologist, a character who passes through introverted to almost actively misanthropic, thus magnifying the dislocation of the reader from the more immediately human aspects of the story (of which there are precious few to begin with).

I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up and attempt something like a plot summary. Area X is a quarantined remote but still sparsely populated costal region. Officially it's out-of-bounds due to an environmental disaster, but thirty years ago an "event" occurred creating a border. Inside this the environment is returning to a pristine wilderness, while the outside is monitored by the eponymous Southern Reach agency. Many expeditions have been sent into Area X by the Southern Reach, and all have failed: disappeared, gone mad, or, most disturbingly of all, returned as versions of people almost but not quite themselves.

Annihilation follows the twelfth expedition as it, as all its predecessors have, fails utterly. Authority pulls back to its aftermath, taking place mostly outside Area X as the new agency director ("Control") attempts to take charge of what is revealed to be a ship of fools. This installment is the weakest of the trilogy, as Control is nowhere near as interesting a character as the biologist, and my stomach for office politics is limited at the best of times. Acceptance fortunately steps back up again, returning all the characters to the ambivalent embrace of Area X and providing a few, but crucially nowhere near all, of the answers to the many, many questions that have accrued over the previous volumes.

I mention all this to ground what follows. You can look at some of the many other excellent reviews of the series for more comprehensive and erudite explorations of what the Southern Reach is and where it stands in relation to the zeitgeist, but here I'm going to focus on one small aspect of it all. Because, you see, way back when, towards the tail-end of the last century, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on National Park Management Policy. I also grew up in one. (A national park, not a dissertation.)

British national parks are something of an anomaly in that respect. They don't appear on the UN list of national parks list because most around the world are free of human habitation. There're not free of human influence of course; the creation of a park is an entirely human endeavour and the placing of boundaries upon the wilderness an act designed primarily to benefit people before nature. In the UK the movement to create NPs picked up steam right after WWII. This is an unfortunate metaphor, because the NP movement was a direct reaction to the steam and grime and urban blight of the industrial revolution and the wartime economy. Wordsworth got quoted a lot during this period (and still does), and the first proposed English National Park was the Lake District, with its "hosts of daffodils". In the British context, and I'd suggest the Western imagination in general, the notion of wilderness is inextricably linked with Romanticism.

In 1951, however, a large tract mostly in north Derbyshire and almost equidistant between the major industrial conurbations of Manchester and South Yorkshire was designated as the UK's first National Park, and the Peak District is often referred to as "The lungs of England" (in their own promo material, at least). I don’t know if VanderMeer was aware of this, but given the large slugs of body-horror splattered throughout the books—not least regarding the “topographical anomaly”—I wouldn’t be surprised. The environment as a single organism is a pretty venerable trope, but one that’s given fresh life here, forcing you to consider how we assign boundaries: at what point does the collection of cells and atoms that comprise ‘you’ stop being ‘you’ and start being something else? Not for nothing is the biologist an expert in transitional environments: where are the boundaries? Who, or what, gets to decide? Once things have been marked as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, how does that affect them?

The simple truth about National Parks the world over is that they're managed environments: even those lacking human habitation are subject to human decisions which shape them (see the varying fashions for quelling or allowing forest fires in Yellowstone, for example). The undeniable (if you've any sense at all) facts of anthropogenically enhanced climate change also mean that there is, frankly, no ecosystem left on the planet left uninfluenced by human activity. We’ve got our sticky, dirty little fingers into everything, and in doing so have managed to fuck stuff up royally. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons: rational individual actors have little personal incentive to think long-term about the preservation of shared resources, as the benefits of exploitation accrue individually, but the negatives are shared by all. Arguably the greater portion of post-enlighten philosophical endeavour has been a continuing attempt to frame this imbalance in morally acceptable terms. To say that this is practically all present-day neo-liberal thought is concerned with hopefully stands as a statement of the blindingly obvious.

The solution, of course, is to limit the degree to which individuals can benefit from overexploitation, whether through communal mores or, if that route fails, top-down regulation. Which is—perhaps—the solution imposed here, though quite who is doing the imposing is never entirely clear.

There’s so much more we could be talking about here, but I find my ability to frame questions far outstrips my ability to provide answers. We could extend the body metaphor and discuss the degree to which humans are a sickness which must be purged. We could consider the fundamental questions asked of anthropocentricism; of how the opposite of dystopia is perhaps not utopia, but the total absence of people whatsoever—nontopia, if you like. We could, ultimately, consider the degree to which any of this matters at all. And that, more than anything, is the true horror of The Southern Reach. What if no one cares?

1 comment:

  1. I've been interested in this on and off, more now after it topped my picks for the Nebula. It would have been fun to toss into another joint effort maybe.

    Also, when are you going to start fighting fascism? (My new favorite comment of all time.)