The autumnal equinox approaches; the light fades.
This time of year, my reading habits steer toward darker waters. Beach reads have been consumed, and meatier books pique my interest. Sometimes the transition from light to dark can be a philosophical challenge. Halfway through book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Acceptance, I knew exactly what (and who) would help me sort out the churning thought-chaos I was experiencing:
Why, it’s none other than delightful French novelist Michel Houellebecq!
But let me back up a little.
The first book of Jeff Vandermeer’s trilogy, Annihilation, will transport any Lovecraft fan onto the familiar yet unstable landscape of a genre I think of as Nature-Dread. (If you already know what I’m talking about, and you haven’t read them, seek out Algernon Blackwood’s classic stories The Willows and The Wendigo, both included in this collection.)
Lovecraft, Blackwood, and now Vandermeer are masters of a specific kind of uncanny prose that gradually infects the reader with dread; a feeling of being observed by an unknown (and unknowable) consciousness that exists on a plane so foreign to humans that it renders humanity irrelevant. The very act of writing such stories is a paradox, since the writer (a person) is attempting to conjure a perspective wholly outside of the human experience. This is why such unknowable forces are often associated with flora and fauna. Nature is the ultimate other. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Blackwood’s Wendigo, and Vandermeer’s leviathans are physical creatures, but they ooze such potent dread that their physicality is secondary to their symbolism.
For some, there is nothing compelling about these narratives. In many of Lovecraft’s stories, it seems as though he was loathe to include any human characters at all, but realized begrudgingly that an omission that radical would further reduce his already small readership. About Lovecraft, Houellebecq writes:
“Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions.” All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.”
Feeling depressed yet? Don’t. Lovecraft may be the bitter spring from which this genre flows, but from what we know of his life, his philosophy was a pretty direct result of anxiety, xenophobia, and isolation. I enjoy his writing, but the more I’ve learned about him as a person, the more I feel that his legacy is a product of much suffering and myopia.
Jeff Vandermeer embraces a friendlier, more global view in his trilogy. His characters, though living in a world of ever-dwindling human relevance, are motivated by desire, curiosity and ambition. Their attempts to hang on to normalcy and daily ritual while exploring the alien landscape of Area X are sometimes overwhelmingly poignant. And while this landscape is hostile, Vandermeer’s characters are not completely repelled by their dread. A biologist is able to take a scientific view of strange hybrid creatures and movements at the corners of her eyes, even as her body begins to mysteriously transform. Wonder- along with fear- is possible in the presence of the unknowable.
Just because I am attracted to nihilism in fiction, doesn’t mean I’m ready to abandon hope and humanity. On the contrary! If this can be considered a genre, it seems like the natural progression of the post-apocalyptic themes that have been selling books for decades. What’s one step beyond the plague that wipes out all but .001% of us, or the meteor that sends us the way of the dinosaurs? Maybe I don’t read enough speculative fiction or sci-fi to know if a completely post-human book has already been written, but please send it my way if it has!