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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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