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Tome On The Range

An Indifferent Hunter: Stories Of Geography Gone Mad
Tobias Carroll , October 5th, 2014 09:52

Vol.1 Brooklyn managing editor Tobias Carroll writes on geographical anxiety, the near-reality of the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative and the contemporary relationship of distrust between man and nature. (Photograph by Carlos Gutierrez)

In the end, it might be geography that gets us. Reading accounts of New Orleans after Katrina, or Atlantic City after Sandy, calls to mind the postapocalyptic narratives that readers with an early inclination towards science fiction grew up with. It’s not for nothing that John Hillcoat drew inspiration from the wreckage after Katrina in his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, after all. Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami follows her journeys in Japan after the 2011 tsunami hit; change certain details and send it back in time forty years, and you could convince readers that you had a future New Wave science fiction classic on their hands. Earlier this summer, Vox ran a story and image that suggested another moment of seismic geographic change: a contemporary map “if the supercontinent Pangaea spontaneously reunited.” Reading it, I was surprised that a writer hadn’t taken that idea and run with that, whether in film, fiction, or comics. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, natural disasters inspired stories of divine intervention and battles in the cosmos. We live in a world that we now have a far greater ability to understand – but when events occur that exceed our ability to comprehend, anxieties creep in to our minds. And, in the past year, three memorable stories have tapped into these very anxieties.

The three novels that make up Jeff VanderMeer’s recently-concluded Southern Reach trilogy take place in the aftermath of an event that has altered part of a landscape, dubbed “Area X,” in a fundamental way. Just how fundamental, and in just what ways, are revealed piece by piece over the course of the trilogy. Central to VanderMeer’s story is the government agency tasked with understanding and exploring Area X — both the agency itself and its limitations, internal politics, and long-running conspiracies. Trees, a comic by writer Warren Ellis and artist Jason Howard, follows a number of perspectives throughout human society a decade after large alien objects — the “Trees” of the title — landed on different points throughout the planet. Their purpose is fundamentally unknown, but their relationship to society is one of terrifying indifference. As one character notes, “The most important things in history landed and we mean nothing to them.” And while Edan Lepucki’s novel California is more concerned with the details of daily life after a societal collapse, the details of that collapse that slowly emerge over the course of the novel are scarily plausible, and rooted in disasters that have befallen the country before, from polar vortices to earthquakes.

Annihilation, the first of VanderMeer’s trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition to explore Area X. It’s narrated by one of that expedition’s four members, a biologist, whose now-deceased husband had been a part of an earlier expedition. Adding to the disorientation, a number of the trilogy’s characters are referred to by their titles: “the biologist,” “the psychologist;” even John Rodriguez, the man at the center of Authority, who is referred to as “Control.” Depending on the viewpoint of a particular scene, a character might be referred to by their given name, their title, or something else entirely. It’s a subtly disorienting aspect of the book, but it’s one that mirrors the geographic and temporal disorientation experienced by some of the characters. (And that’s not even factoring in the way that Area X seems to alter those who have returned from expeditions there.)

From the first sentence of Annihilation, it is apparent that there’s an essential wrongness to the landscape:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.

Throughout the book–throughout the trilogy–characters will encounter things that were not supposed to be in the places that they are. A lighthouse contains a trove of impossible documents; the headquarters of the Southern Reach houses secret rooms; and Rodriguez spends much of Authority attempting to comprehend the nature of the border separating Area X from the outside world. Late in the novel, he reads a document relating to Area X and finds it increasingly unsettling:

He stopped reading at a certain point. It was at a section where Whitby described the border as “invisible skin,” and those who tried to pass through it without using the door trapped forever in a vast stretch of otherwhere hundreds of miles wide. Even though the steps by which Whitby had gotten to this point had seemed, for a time, sobering and deliberate.

This ambiguity extends to the Southern Reach itself. The biologist who narrates Annihilation sets out the basic history: prior to the Event that changed it, what became the Southern Reach was “part of a wilderness that lay adjacent to a military base.” In Authority and Acceptance, further glimpses of the outside world are given, including Rodriguez’s house, the Southern Reach headquarters, and, in flashbacks, glimpses of what life was like in what would become Area X before the Event took hold. What the reader doesn’t get is an indication of where this is all taking place. At times, the use of the phrase “Southern Reach” suggests the American South–something given some credence by VanderMeer discussing the inspiration for his writing that he gets from long walks through northern Florida. But in another interview, he also spoke of walking through the Pacific Coast, and there are elements of the novel that could just as easily be on the Oregon coast, or inside a New England fishing village. That implies a kind of assurance, however, and any kind of certainty slowly ebbs away over the course of these three novels. There’s only the sense of loss: of space, of identity, of uniqueness, of form, of consciousness. The Southern Reach trilogy contains many familiar elements, from body horror to political conspiracies to psychological thrills. But at its center are primal anxieties, the kind that wake you, screaming and sweating, from dreams of impossible spaces.

Reading Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s comic Trees offers a similarly ominous sensibility, albeit with more familiar locations. Set ten years after giant alien structures landed on Earth–sometimes in the middle of cities, sometimes in the middle of nowhere–the series follows a group of seemingly-disconnected figures, from scientists to journalists to politicians, whose lives have been altered by the Trees in some way. And in the ways that the narrative has emerged so far, the question at hand seems to be how the trees will continue to change society. In Sicily, a professor, in offering to teach a young woman certain survival skills, notes that “[o]f all the people who might survive the world to come...perhaps you should be one of them,” suggesting that long-term change brought by the Trees’ presence will lead to more unrest rather than utopia.

A different perspective is shown in a cultural enclave in China where a young artist moves to pursue his studies. There, the presence of the Trees seems to be ushering in a more beneficial societal order: there’s a thriving creative community, and there’s a progressive attitude towards questions of of gender identity. Here, at least, the Trees seem to be a harbinger of a better future, rather than one characterized by uncertainty and fear. (Comparisons could also be made between this and China Miéville’s short story 'Polynia,' in which giant icebergs appear floating over London–here, too, is that sense of displaced geography laced with the impossible.) That question of the future is mirrored in other plotlines in the series: political maneuverings over Trees in Somalia and Puntland that might lead to war; mysterious activity observed by scientists working near Trees in the Arctic Circle.

At this early stage in the series, the Trees are agents of change, though the nature of that change remains unclear. It’s in the grandest science fictional tradition, then: the introduction of something new, with its role in the plot still unclear. Where the Trees fit in with our anxieties is made clear from the outset: their utter indifference makes living in their presence an exercise in being constantly unsettled. In the first issue’s opening scene, something mysterious happens to the Trees in Rio de Janeiro; later, two characters discuss the effect that the Trees had on New York City years before. The scale of Trees varies: there are quiet character moments, and there are scenes of cities being devastated. But even though it accesses numerous anxieties, there does exist the potential for the change imparted in the narrative to benefit the bulk of humanity.

The notion of hope runs through Edan Lepucki’s California, sometimes faintly, sometimes deafeningly. It’s set somewhere in the state that gives the novel its title, and follows a couple, Cal and Frida, as they make their way through the world after American society has collapsed. Lepucki slowly reveals bits and pieces of the world around them: the abandoned spaces they’ve found in which to live, the people they encounter on occasion, and the memories of how they ended up there.

California is set a few decades from now; in flashbacks, we learn about Cal’s education at Plank, a unique, agrarian-focused institution, and how the actions of a radicalized subset of society have seemingly accelerated societal upheaval. The current state of natural disasters has been amplified, including earthquakes and devastating outbreaks of the flu. Cal’s parents in the Midwest are killed by a horrific winter storm, which seems to be a regular occurrence in the future as it exists in California.

The storm that killed his parents in Ohio had been followed by bigger and worse ones, and before the Internet went dead entirely, Cal read that only a third of the population in the Midwest and South remained.

That instability, that sense that the natural world has become something that can no longer be trusted, is an underlying aspect of California’s early pages. That Frida is expecting a child prompts the two to venture further into the changed world; the story that emerges is one of rebuilding, of old institutions and old behaviors and classifications doing battle with the new. At one point, characters encounter the Spikes, a kind of manmade geographic warning feature. Here is humanity, reeling from society’s decline; here, too, is humanity, again imposing its will on the earth. Those questions of familiarity–in space, in society–after all that we’ve come to know has been upended are what draw this book through to its conclusion.

There are chilling moments in all of these works, some arising from the environmental devastation innate to the stories that they tell, and some arising from the fear and paranoia that can stem from them. Lepucki’s novel contains the most significant musings on society as a whole, and what it might mean after conventional notions of it have been swept away. In Trees, the process of change is still ongoing, but the indifference of the natural world (even with unnatural elements) is paramount. In Vandermeer’s novels, the changing landscape can offer primal horror, transcendence, or transfiguration. But then, his books slip between genres more easily. Elements of Authority, for one, are effective regardless of the trilogy’s more surreal elements. What that anxiety reveals, however, is that it can prompt terrifying actions regardless of the context, on both a personal and societal level. That fear can come for us all, whether or not the landscape will devour us.

Discussed in this essay:
The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Trees (issues 1-4) by Warren Ellis (writer) and Jason Howard (art)
California by Edan Lepucki