In Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, explorers research the lush and dangerous ecosystem of Area X. Photo: De Agostini/Getty Images
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The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer: Intricate, complex and surprising

Can we imagine morality on the scale of the human species as a whole?

The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance 
Jeff VanderMeer
All Fourth Estate: 195pp, £10; 341pp, £12.99; 352pp, £12.99

In the remote southern coastal area of an unnamed country a bizarre and baffling phenomenon called Area X has manifested itself. It can be entered and left from only one point along an invisible border. A shadowy para-governmental body, the Southern Reach, set up to investigate Area X, sends out numerous expeditions to comprehend it, but members of these expedition teams return with their minds blank, as if they have become strangers in their own lives, then die unnaturally swiftly from aggressive forms of cancer.

Annihilation is the first novel in the astonishing Southern Reach trilogy by the American writer Jeff VanderMeer, and it lands us straight into the heart of things with the 12th (and final) expedition’s journey into Area X. Narrated by the biologist who is one of the team members (all unnamed), Annihilation is a frightening book, but also narratively and architecturally a brave one, because VanderMeer gets the “encounter with the alien”, normally the stuff of heart-pounding denouements, out of the way with the first instalment.

As if to spare us the intensity, the second volume, Authority, transports readers away from the epicentre, this time to the headquarters of Southern Reach itself, and lifts the curtains on the workings of this sinister outfit whose former director meets a grisly yet mysterious end in Annihilation. Seen mostly from the point of view of a newly appointed director called Control, whose real name is John Rodriguez, and concentrating largely on his interiority, Authority sounds one of the most important chords in the trilogy, namely, a kind of epistemological scepticism, an acknowledgement of the limits and sheer bluntness and infantility of human reasoning when confronted with something utterly uncategorisable such as Area X. As one character notes: “A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle . . . How do you know if something is out of the ordinary when you don’t know if your instruments would register the progressions?” By the time Control fumbles towards a vague notion that Area X may be sentient and “smarter, more insidious, more resourceful” than human beings could conceive of – that, in fact, instead of being a puzzle to be solved, it was beginning to solve human beings instead – Southern Reach comes to a spectacular end.

All the features in Annihilation – the densely imagined and extraordinarily ren­dered landscape of Area X with its two lighthouses, one of them located on a tiny uninhabited island off the coast; something called “a topographical anomaly”, which houses a life-form called the Crawler; the lush, wild ecosystem, reverting to a pristine state and flushing out all traces of man-made effluents and toxins; the mysteries centred around the lighthouses – recur in the final book, Acceptance, with increasing density of meaning and revelations. The imaginative daring and reach with which VanderMeer has invented and executed a concept such as Area X is breathtaking, especially in an explosive twist halfway through Acceptance that effortlessly moves the story from the local and earthbound to the cosmic.

Simultaneous with the forward propulsion of the story is an equally masterful looping backwards in time to the central characters’ pasts as well as, crucially, to the possible origins of Area X and an explanation of its nature. The braiding of past and present is impeccable, a staggering feat of narrative architecture. What is the “brightness” that people who have visited Area X feel that is infecting them from the inside? What is the nature of the metamorphosis that the place wreaks on human beings? What kind of a biosphere is Area X?

Everything begins to fall into place, but in such intricate, complex and surprising ways that the explanations and revelations do not exhaustively explain and reveal, leaving a surplus that always remains outside the reach of understanding. This makes the trilogy – all three volumes of which have been published in quick succession this year – even more powerful and echoing. “You could know the what of something forever and never discover the why,” as one of the protagonists thinks.

That great theme of scepticism, of human beings as “incredibly blunt instruments”, now blooms into a flower of terrible beauty as we come closer to comprehending Area X. As a character explains,

that whatever’s causing [Area X] can manipulate the genome, work miracles of mimicry and biology . . . knows what to do with molecules and membranes, can peer through things, can surveil, and then withdraw. That, to it, a smartphone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature.”

Mentions have been made of the influence of H P Lovecraft on the trilogy, especially in the presence of a strong element of bio-horror and weird, metamorphic biological forms – but the real inspirations that provide VanderMeer with his philosophical dynamo are Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), both adapted, in watershed instances of 20th-century cinema, by Andrei Tarkovsky, as Solaris and Stalker.

As with the ocean that covers the surface of Solaris and can “read” the innermost thoughts and memories of the men in the space capsule orbiting it, or the Zone in Roadside Picnic, which, with magisterial indifference, brings human beings short and sharp up against their minuscule moral and cognitive stature, Area X is “something peering through what we think of as reality” to put human life and achievements in the vaster context of the universe.

The moral energy that gives the Southern Reach trilogy its profundity is not dissimilar from the one that powers those earlier works: it is the admission of how we are bound by our own view of consciousness, entwined with an appeal for a cognitive ethics. How should we be when faced with phenomena we don’t or cannot understand? Can we imagine morality on the scale of the human species as a whole? What is the moral imperative of the imagination? To use a fossil-era dualism, I hope the trilogy will come to be seen not only as the instant sci-fi classic it is, but also as Literature.

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”(Chatto & Windus, £16.99), has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism