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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Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks out the mental depth cameras can't know

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war