This week marks the release of my new novel, Annihilation, the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, which documents the effects of Area X, a place cut off from the rest of the world, and the efforts of a secret government agency, the Southern Reach, to figure out Area X’s secrets. This involves sending in expeditions to what was once simply a remote coastal wilderness, sparsely populated. Now the lighthouse is abandoned and filled with the signs of violence. An odd tunnel spirals into the ground not far from expedition base camp, and at night some unknown creature moans from across the marshes. Annihilation chronicles what happens to the twelfth expedition sent into Area X, our narrator a nameless biologist who brings her own secrets with her. The expedition consists of four women: in addition to the biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist. They cannot bring modern tech in with them; nor can they refer to each other by their names. These are the rules in Area X, and the fate of prior expeditions has made clear the punishment for not obeying them.
Although readers will have, by the third novel in the series, answers to the questions posed by these mysteries, my main focus with the Southern Reach is two-fold: to explore our relationship to nature and to explore how people react when facing what appears to be the utterly unknowable. There’s a confluence between these two types of “expeditions,” and it comes about because to many nature is the unknown in some way – or, for others, unknowable because we think we know it all already when we’re actually just on the cusp of beginning to understand. As I wrote in an answer for an interview with a Hungarian magazine:
I think there are so many limiting ways human beings think about nature. Some of us think of nature as there to be exploited. Others think of us as being stewards of something more primitive than we are. Still others are enraptured by talking mice in movies and think animals actually might act that way. Or are enamored of the romanticism of animals in folktales. Whereas in fact, we live on an alien planet filled with incredibly sophisticated organisms that we only partially understand. The fact that we only know now that plants engage in quantum mechanics during photosynthesis or that sunfish and the albatross have a complex symbiotic relationship shows that our so-called smart-phones and other advanced technology is incredibly dull and primitive next to the diversity and intensity of other life on Earth. And so whereas a lot of weird SF seems to be about nature as this threatening Other…I wanted to explore something else.
To the biologist, the strangest of all organisms are human beings, really, and much of what a reader may find frightening about Area X, she finds fascinating or, in some cases, even calming. And at least part of the sense of unease in Annihilation hopefully comes not from nature, which is merrily humming along doing its thing, but the weight and perspective the human gaze puts upon it – as well as the ways in which nature seems to work…unnaturally…in Area X.
This is grounded by another impulse: the autobiographical one, the ways in which we as writers use what we find personal to express something we hope might be more universal. The setting in Annihilation is, more or less, a transformed version of the fourteen-mile hike I have done for almost twenty years at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge here in North Florida. It is a landscape and a series of transitional ecosystems that have enchanted me, fascinated me, and at times scared me. I’ve seen a Florida panther in that place, and turned a corner right into the gaze of a bobcat, been charged by a wild boar, seen dolphins swimming up the brackish marsh canals at high tide, and had to jump over an alligator on a raised path with water on either side. It’s a place where you need to live in the moment, and yet can also, by doing so, be transported deep into memory and catharsis.
All of these thoughts about nature – and how if we’re going to set ourselves apart from it, as if we’re not hip-deep in it – lead me to the desire to someday edit a “Weird Nature” anthology, given that the more we find out about our world, the stranger it appears to be, and more complex. Someday, perhaps, we’ll normalize that strangeness in our heads – and cherish it. We may even be forced to do so by the circumstances of our own poor stewardship of the planet. We may be forced to imagine the world without human being on it in order to arrive at a point of view that allows us to continue to live upon it sustainably.
(To that end, if you have a favorite “weird nature” short story you’ve read, please post in the comments.)
This is an excerpt from the draft of a longer essay, in progress. For more images, check out the Annihilation gallery.