Jeff Karnicky is Associate Professor of English at Drake University. His interests lie in literary theory, contemporary American literature, and contemporary Scottish literature. Most recently, he has become interested in the relationship between literary theory and ecological awareness, especially as this relation connects to animal consciousness.
Photos by the author.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy doesn’t tell you where Area X is. The flora, fauna, and landscape of Area X bears a striking similarity to that of Florida—fiddler crabs, raccoons, white-tailed deer, otter, herons and egrets, the ubiquitous pine trees , salt marshes, reeds, and beaches—live in both both places. In the “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the book, VanderMeer thanks “the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge” of Northwest Florida. And this is not to mention that VanderMeer himself resides in the state. But the verisimilitude only goes so far. The novels give no Floridian place names, and the first novel, Annihilation, at least, won’t even use the word “alligator,” instead mentioning only “huge aquatic reptiles” that “after bathing in the sun, slid[e] back into the water.”
So, while a familiarity with Florida’s ecology and a tiny bit of research can lead a reader to see Florida in Area X, it seems more important to remember that Florida does not equal Area X, precisely and simply because the book is a work of fiction. Maybe it’s better then to say that Florida contains Area X, and that Area X contains Florida.
But as presidential candidate Jeb Bush begs an audience to “please clap” as he fades in the polls, VanderMeer’s fiction gestures more concretely toward our contemporary world. His recent short story “Jeb @” imagines Bush’s disappearance from the world as his poll numbers shrink. “Jeb at 0% drifts with the wind, floats across a pond’s clear surface, basks in the sun, has lost his glasses, doesn’t wonder where they are…” (Jeb @). This fictionalized Jeb seems to becomes one of the hybrid denizens of Area X, akin to the moaning creature with human eyes in the reeds that “kept calling, pleading with me . . .to see it entire, to acknowledge its existence.” While there might be an alien, unknown origin to Area X, Florida’s ecological problems have an all-too-well-known origin. The 20th century influx of humans has forever altered Florida, altering the southerly flow of water through the Everglades, and altering nearly every part of the landscape.
And this devastation is accelerating. Responding to the news that Florida might soon allow fracking, VanderMeer has written on Facebook “This fracking situation in Florida is depressing and terrible. . . . The governor and the legislature have failed to protect the state from a tragedy in the making. . . . They’re killers, destroyers, people who have no soul.” We now know the origins of environmental destruction.
All the more reason to say that Florida is in Area X. Think about the closeness of wildlife that has nowhere else to go. The panthers hit by cars. The (nonnative) armadillos in gardens. The alligators in swimming pools. The great blue herons and great egrets standing mere feet away from observers. Even the federally-threatened woodstork can be approached and photographed at close range, as can barred owls and other forms of wildlife.
So yes, the Southern Reach trilogy warns us about what we are doing to the environment. But that is really the least of what it does. It is a warning by analogy, a warning through the lens of fiction. In his recent essay “The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction,” in a brief critique of the state of science fiction, VanderMeer notes that “fiction is languishing behind other disciplines in grappling with [the] issues ”of climate change and ecological catastrophe.” At the same time, VanderMeer writes, “global warming looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over. How can it not be in the subtext of much of what we write?” It must be there, somewhere. Everywhere and nowhere. And this is what the Southern Reach trilogy excels at. It refuses to use fiction as only analogy, as mere allegory. Area X resists translation into real world facts, even as it floats around, through, and within these facts.
Maybe, then, it is best to think about the radically unknowability of Area X. The Southern Reach trilogy notes that, ultimately “no reliable samples” were collected on any expedition, that ascribing any sense of purpose to or for the creatures of Area X is just vulgar anthropomorphism. “An organism can have a purpose and yet also make patterns that have little to do with that purpose” (188). Observing measuring, categorizing all point to what the novels call “a lack of imagination, because human beings couldn’t even put themselves in the mind of a cormorant or an owl or a whale or a bumblebee” (189). Humans cannot understand a world that does not need them, as one character notes sarcastically, “as if purpose could solve everything” (190). Area X has no purpose; its creatures, even its time and space, have nothing to do with the human. In short, in the Southern Reach trilogy, one cannot solve for X. X remains less than X; X does not stand for the unknown or the indeterminate; X signifies nothing; X does not equal Florida.
Yet, there are other equations that can be made. The Southern Reach trilogy lopes back toward the willful disavowal of the devastation of Florida; as Jeb dissipates, Marco, Ted, and a whole litany of climate-change-deniers rises. The trilogy also reaches toward the drive to record, in the hopes of stopping that devastation. It moves toward something else, too—towards an act of imagination—toward fiction where a lighthouse keeper can write with fungus, where an owl can be a dead husband, where animals know at least as much as humans about how the world works. Where Jeb and countless other politicians, scientists, authors, critics, humans, woodstorks, alligators, disappear into the reeds and reemerge as the monsters who have no choice but to inhabit the ecosystem that created them.