Facing the horror of the unknown

Fear of the unknown— an immutable human trait— traces deep into our evolutionary subconscious. Some use science to cast light into the void of uncertainty. Others seek solace in religion. But what if we faced an adversary so elusive, yet so visceral, that we can neither understand it nor escape it? What do we call a phenomenon that's everywhere but nowhere?

Enter the mindscape of Jeff VanderMeer, masterfully wrought over the three novels comprising the Southern Reach Trilogy. Set in a world—maybe our own, maybe not—where an aberration has seeped into the land. The infected region is called Area X. A stretch of pristine coastline sprinkled with intermittent marsh and forest, somehow discontiguous with the outside world. It's kept under the strict surveillance of a shadowy agency known as the Southern Reach. Only trained personnel, minds altered through intensive psychological conditioning, are allowed to enter.


Both beautiful and horrible, what really eats the reader about Area X is not what this place is, but what we may never know about it. As VanderMeer draws us into his world, he brings us face-to-face with the limits of our own perception. An omnipresence that's impossible to see, touch or measure. That mimics other organisms and ecosystems; that warps space and time. Is it an alien invasion? The planet's retaliation against our unsustainable existence? Are we all just losing our minds?

We have some hints. The first book details a biologist's exploration of Area X. Of all characters in the series, it's this (unnamed) biologist who may come closest to understanding the true nature of the phenomenon. Which is only to say that she accepts her fate early on: A victim of Area X, a creature too limited by her own biology to unravel its secrets.

It is interesting that VanderMeer chooses to embody acceptance of the unknown in the form of a scientist. As Richard Feyman once said, "science is imagination in a straight-jacket." Science is a fascination with the possibilities of existence, conformed to the truth of hard-won data. At its core, science is acceptance only of what can be measured and described.

As a scientist, I find myself wanting to solve Area X. I want to dissect it into variables, to find correlations and causations, to pack it into a theoretical framework with dimensions and response curves. As a matter of fact, I did just that. I used ecological principles to cast Area X as some sort of super-organism, practicing a form of mimicry more elaborate than anything humans have ever encountered.


On some levels, I found this characterization satisfying. But as more of Area X is revealed in the series's final chapter, Acceptance, I found myself hitting a wall. Wondering what sort of organism could bend the laws of physics, stretching days into years and distorting the night sky itself. Are my ecological principles, like the Southern Reach scientists' theories of terroir, inherently weak, flawed analogies for the organization and behavior of Area X? I started to feel like an interloper: Imagine a person from the Stone Age trying to make sense of a computer. Maybe I simply don't have the right frame of reference. Or maybe Area X has no place in my notion of reality.


Of all scientific disciplines, it's probably physics that most often skirts the boundary of reality, as we know it, and truths beyond our ability to conceptualize. We now know the empty space of the universe is not really empty, but filled with dark energy that produces a sort of cosmic antigravity. The iconic neologism of quantum physics, a cat that is both alive and dead, speaks to how, at the subatomic level, objects do not have identity until we measure them. These notions, and many other wonders of the universe revealed by physics, slash intuitive reality at the knees.

Perhaps it's no surprise that physics and religion often seem to cross paths. Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is often asked whether the study of astrophysics has made him more or less religious. Though a deeply personal question for every scientist, the boundaries of knowledge that physics probes are, for many, the space where science and religion start to blur.


Where do we go from here? When our scientific tools fail, when our biological senses are too limited, when we lose our authority regarding the laws of nature, are we still scientists? Does our identity as knowledge-seekers and problem solvers unravel in the face of the unknowable? These are the questions left smoldering in the ashes of the comfortable, knowable world that VanderMeer tears down.

And if these questions don't make the scientist in me twitchy enough, I believe there's an even deeper issue buried somewhere (a tunnel, perhaps?) in Area X. If we did understand this place, would it matter? An axiom at the core of scientific exploration is that with knowledge comes power. But what if the only way to gain knowledge was to relinquish all power? Indeed, it seems that to truly know Area X, one has to become Area X, and in so doing, allow oneself to be destroyed. What if complete loss of control is inevitable? What if the only way forward is annihilation and acceptance?


I'm left wondering if perhaps the real problem with Area X is one of compatibility. Our basic human instinct to problem-solve seems at odds with the very nature of this place.

At the end of the series' first book, Annihilation, the biologist discovers the journal of her late husband, who crossed into Area X on an earlier expedition:

"You would love it here," he wrote in a particularly manic entry that suggested to me not so much optimism as an unsettling euphoria. "You would love the light on the dunes. You would love the sheer expansive wildness of it."


I can't put my finger on it, but I know I've stepped into a nightmare.

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