A few weeks ago, I absorbed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first in his Southern Reach trilogy. I say “absorbed” instead of “read” as a joke—read the book and you’ll understand why—but it’s also a better word for the experience.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
Four explorers—a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor—enter a nightmare landscape called “Area X,” commissioned by a government organization called the Southern Reach. Area X is a verdant and unsettling landscape transformed by an “Event,” which is only painted in veiled descriptions.
Their task is to explore a lighthouse and document their findings—but their mission changes when they discover an underground staircase near base camp. Over the course of the novel, the biologist uncovers darker and darker truths about her mission and the nature of Area X. The four of them struggle desperately to hold onto their sanity.
Most of them don’t.
Observation Is Transformation
One of the fascinating ideas explored in the novel is how observation changes the observer.
Laymen (like me) often recall the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle this way: “It is impossible to observe an object without fundamentally changing the object.”
Note: that isn’t the actual principle, it’s just how we often think of it.
But the book inverts the Heisenberg principle: “It is impossible to observe an object without becoming fundamentally changed by the object.”
Describing the nature of field research, she says:
“When you see beauty in desolation, it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
The biologist—a woman who seeks the solitude of the wilderness and hides herself in “research”—becomes something new as a result of documenting Area X. Her observation becomes revelation, giving way to transformation.
Discovering Truth Through Observable Revelation
Early in the novel, the biologist realizes that the psychologist (the leader of the expedition) has programmed the team with hypnotic triggers. As the environment affects the biologist through her observation, the hypnotic suggestions melt away—and reveal Area X in all its terrible truth.
For example, when the expedition first climbs down the Staircase, the walls are stone. When the hypnosis weakens, she looks again—and sees the walls are the lining of a living creature.
Her revelation frames her mission into an entirely new light—she’s no longer a volunteer exploring a new land. She’s a canary let loose in a mineshaft, bolstered with hypnotic aids to fool her into believing she’s in familiar surroundings; once the hypnosis ends, she’ll no longer be a beneficiary of the illusion. Her discoveries cascade, as one truth reveals the nonsensical premise of the next layer of lies. As she observes, her perception shifts and morphs as she does.
The more she observes, the deeper she changes.
Near the end of the novel, the psychologist threatens to remove the last of her hypnotic protections—the last obstacle between her and the truth in plain sight all around her. While it doesn’t actually happen, the book ends with the implication that they will eventually fade away. One day soon, the biologist will reckon with Area X as it truly is.
When that happens, her transformation into a part of the landscape will be complete:
“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”