Sunday, February 9, 2014

Vandermeer's Annihilation and the Sublime

So... I finished Annihilation -- the first of Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy novels -- last night and I'm extremely impressed and excited for the next chapter. Why? Because the novel partakes, quite expertly, in an aesthetic tradition that I'm indebted to in my own writing and in my academic work: the sublime.

Let me take a brief aside here to explain what I mean by "the sublime." I wrote my doctoral thesis on this subject and it's one I find particularly germane to speculative fiction. The sublime, as an aesthetic concept, has a long and involved history. It's been variously explained as a rhetorical sleight of hand that overrides logic (the Longinian sublime), an indicator of the limits of human imagination (the Kantian sublime), and, most pertinent to my interests, as a hybrid feeling of terror and wonder (the Burkean sublime). When I say "the sublime," I'm talking about this dualistic feeling and the objects that evoke it. (If you want more on the sublime, check out my dissertation -- a book unto itself -- here.)

That being said, the overarching aesthetic at work within Vandermeer's Annihilation is precisely a combination of wonder and terror. At no point in the novel are we ever so privy to logic or reason that we can feel safe or secure in the world of Area X -- the strange, overgrown wildland that the characters of Annihilation are tasked with exploring. Vandermeer shades every scene with a sense of foreboding, with an implication that some reality-altering force or knowledge slouches just beyond our reach (our Southern reach, perhaps?!). On one hand, this force/knowledge is terrifying; it causes people to lose their minds, to commit acts of violence against one another, to mutate and dissolve and -- without giving too much away -- become literal shadows of themselves. It should evoke within its reader a sense of unease with both the world of the novel and reality writ large (and this, I believe, is why so many readers are calling the novel "Lovecraftian" even though Vandermeer is an avowed non-disciple of Lovecraft). At the same time, however, the force that operates within Area X is wondrous. It allows near-magical forms of life to evolve, creates a complex, self-sustaining ecosystem for the area, and causes changes within people that may, sometimes, be quite beneficial -- even salvatory -- for those individuals (as is the case for the novel's primary protagonist).

It is this dichotomy at work within Annihilation's Area X that makes me salivate. Area X is a sublime world, both menacing and glorious. It has equal power to build and destroy. Whatever forces galvanize Area X, they are laced with infinite possibility and, as is the nature with such expansive possibility, sometimes the manifestation of those possibilities is beautiful, mesmerizing, and life-affirming while, other times, it is horrible, grotesque, and death-dealing. Annihilation plunges us into the vastness of an unknown sphere of potentiality and refuses to let us come up for air. Rather, it holds us under, grants us the opportunity to see the universe as a place of terrible metamorphoses and wondrous revelations, and forces us to realize that, sometimes, great changes require great sacrifices.

Of course, there's plenty more going on in Annihilation than just aesthetic promulgation. There's the metaphorization of relationships and interpersonal alienation as a journey into strange, dark, fantastical lands. There's the celebration of nature as a sublime force in and of itself. And there's the implicit condemnation of science as an incomplete tool for exploration -- especially where matters of self and matters of the heart are concerned.

In Annihilation, Vandermeer pours the foundation for what could become a classic of weird literature and I hope that with the next two volumes of the trilogy, he expands on that foundation in a way that adds additional complexity and nuance to the ideas that gird this first book of the series.

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