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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit