by Laura Perry
Originally published in Edge Effects on February 22, 2018
“It’s like they’re stuck in continuous mutation… making something new,” Natalie Portman’s character realizes in the new ecological thriller, Annihilation. If the film adaptation is anything like Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel of the same name, audiences will leave the theater wondering if the next squirrel or snail they spot is not what it seems but instead “something new,” something alien.
Drawn from his walks in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida, VanderMeer’s Annihilation embeds an alien invasion in a kind of ecological Twilight Zone, where aliens appear not as friendly suburban neighbors but in the guise of outlandish plants and animals making their home in a “pristine” stretch of wilderness.
A biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist are dispatched as an expedition team—the twelfth, they’re told—to study what government agencies refer to as Area X. At first glance, Area X seems like a few miles of uninhabited, unassuming coastline. The expedition’s members soon realize that though humans have left the area, that does not mean it is uninhabited. There are warblers, flickers, herons, cormorants, black ibises, banana spiders, damselflies, velvet ants, emerald beetles, tree frogs, fiddler crabs, wild boars, bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and fungi among the scrub grass, moss, pine and cypress trees, and salt marshes. (And that’s all in the first chapter.)
But there’s also something else. A boar with a strangely human face. Words on the side of a wall inexplicably made of fruiting bodies. A gastropod surrounded by a nimbus of whirling light.
Representing unfamiliar plants and animals as alien invaders is not the sole province of science fiction. Conservation biologists have long debated whether to resist or embrace the aliens who live among us. In an influential 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, Charles Elton described the movement of animals, plants, and other living things around the globe as a series of “ecological explosions” spurred by “invaders” like the European Starling. As environmental historian Libby Robin puts it: “Elton’s imaginative leap was to reconceptualise biota as invaders, to give them agency, and to construct them as a worthy enemy to be managed.” Deploying militaristic language and likening himself to a “war correspondent,” Elton outlined only three possible approaches to an invasive, alien species: “You can tackle them before they get in or while they are trying, so to speak, to pass through the guard—this is quarantine. You can destroy their first small bridgeheads—that is eradication. … Usually, if an invasion has got really going it can only be dealt with by keeping the numbers within bounds, that is by control.”
More recently, ecologists have come to terms with the idea that aliens may already live among us and may be here to stay. As nineteen ecologists argue in a co-authored 2011 Nature article, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “increasingly, the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive.” They go on to suggest that “we must embrace the fact of ‘novel ecosystems’ and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them.” Though this idea of embracing novel ecosystems may seem “largely innocuous,” Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore point out that the intensity of the debates about what to do with alien species reveals the ongoing “anxiety, discomfort, conflict, and ambivalence experienced by research scientists in fields confronting ecological novelty in a quickly-changing world.”
“We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.”
Annihilation both diagnoses this problem and models a solution in a one-two punch that shows just how useful the genre of science fiction can be. When first confronted with undeniably alien phenomena, the members of the expedition team turn to their disciplines and their training for answers: taking notes, “adding detail and nuance to the maps our superiors had given us,” examining the remains of nearby cabins, and “observing a tiny red-and-green tree frog.” Yet the biologist soon comes to believe that these collective attempts to “catalogue the biological reality” are forms of “misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making others invisible?” Though the biologist values her research, she also concludes that “sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes.”
Her approaches to the environments around her are at once intuitive and immersive as well as data-driven, which helps her better understand and adapt to the alien presences she begins to notice in the pristine wilderness of Area X. As the biologist explains, “we were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.” Between government-imposed secrecy and Area X’s unfamiliar flora and fauna, the expedition team is left to wonder if their tools and training can provide any answers at all.
The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life.
Academics are wondering this, too. A recent special issue of the journal Environmental Humanities, “Familiarizing the Extraterrestrial / Making Our Planet Alien,” explores how the “extraterrestrial” now haunts unexpected disciplines like anthropology, philosophy, history, geography, and psychology, as well as fields like science and technology studies. The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life. Zoom in to the microscopic scale, and as Juan Francisco Salazar points out in his study of microbial geographies, we realize that our guts share a biome with the oceans and we are all hosts to an abundance of aliens, invisible to the eye.
This is where science fiction offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life. As the issue’s editors point out, any “theory of the universe includes poetic leaps; any scientific representation is based on some kind of artistic choice. But these leaps and choices typically remain unnoticed. They stay under the radar because we lack the appropriate tools to spot them.”
The boundary-pushing poetic leaps that make Annihilation such a thrilling read also make it a useful tool for those of us who are looking for new ways of living with neighboring nonhumans. If scientists need training in the uncanny, what better way than a crash course in science fiction? As Ursula Heise, Fredric Jameson, and other literary scholars suggest, by imagining alternate worlds and futures science fiction can “make readers see the present anew.” Science fiction can offer us a language to describe the uncanny that we discover and a model for living in an environment that offers more truths than can be measured by microscopes.
What if we were the invaders, even in our own home? What if invasion, contamination, and their companions, pristine and untouched, were inadequate words to explain what is happening to the world around us? What if trying to explain, measure, or define what phenomena move in and shape our world is a fundamentally fruitless exercise with our existing tools and epistemologies? What if language could be a plant, a missing husband an owl, a stretch of coastline a universe?
Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on species and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. She is currently a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow as well as a Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) Fellow. She also hosts Amplify, a weekly radio show on WSUM 91.7 FM Madison. Twitter. Contact.