Theory of a Living Planet
There is a worldview in nonhuman philosophy known as the “living planet”. This asks a person to view the natural world around them as a living thing – not just in grand, figurative terms, but literally. All of the planet’s trees and fields, rivers and valleys, magma core and verdant ecosystems, all constitute a single, living whole. The various parts that make up the living planet are alive as well, and worth the same moral consideration that we apply to other humans, and non-human animals. In his essay, “Initiation into a Living Planet”, Charles Eisenstein puts it this way:
A forest is not just a collection of living trees – it is itself alive. The soil is not just a medium in which life grows; the soil is alive. So is a river, a reef, and a sea. Just as it is a lot easier to degrade, to exploit, and to kill a person when one sees the victim as less than human, so too it is easier to kill Earth’s beings when we see them as unliving and unconscious already.”
The climate crisis that we are currently in, then, is from humankind damaging its relationship with the living planet. And with that, humankind’s perception of the natural world is also weakened. The living planet worldview asserts that, as a species, we have gone from living as one with “mother nature” around us, and now view the natural world as a commodity. A collection of resources to use for our own, personal benefit, without acknowledging the potential consequences of doing so – global warming, natural disasters, famine (to name just a few).
A possible remedy for this – humankind’s deteriorating relationship with its own environment – would be something that reaffirms the idea that humans are part of a Living Planet. I propose that Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, accomplishes this with Area X, the natural setting of the novel.
Annihilation and the Living Planet
The basic story of Annihilation follows the “Biologist”, who is part of a task force assigned with studying Area X – an alien ecosystem that suddenly appears on Earth without any apparent meaning or purpose. As the Biologist moves through Area X, she becomes “contaminated”. She is recreated from the inside by the forces behind Area X, and this allows her to enter into a kind of crude communication with the natural environment around her. The central point of the novel is for the Biologist to reckon with how she sees herself, as well as the physical space around her. It’s also important to note that Area X, though (maybe) stemming from a place outside of Earth, is not itself an “alien” environment. Everything within Area X is a representation of what we would see on Earth – pine trees, marshes, bogs, deers and boars. What makes Area X distinct is its subtle mutations of the flora and fauna – tiny changes to the ecosystem that are hard to understand, like dolphins with human eyes – as well as the fact that Area X is a natural environment that somehow constructed itself.
Annihilation challenges the reader to view their natural surroundings as a living, sentient space. It’s treatment of the setting of Area X as an alien, living ecosystem that the biologist has to move through, asks the reader to rethink their relationship with the natural world around them – is it a collection of physical things, or something that is alive, and capable of feeling? Within Annihilation, the narrator’s shifting perception of the “place” of Area X challenges the reader’s relationship to their own natural environments. Her changing perception is based on how she feels towards her physical surroundings in natural space, which is influenced by the events of the novel. Instead of just being a physical space that the reader can move around in, the narrator’s idea of “place” shows that the natural environment is a space that is alive, and able to react to human action within it. To talk about the narrator’s relationship to her environment, we need to take a geocritical view on how Jeff VanderMeer develops the setting of Annihilation, and discuss why that’s important for a living planet worldview. We also need to look at Yi Fu Tuan’s writings on “Space” and “Place” to understand how Annihilation’s narrator is able to develop a relationship with her physical surroundings in the first place.
Space and Place
Before we analyse the setting of Annihilation, it’s important to discuss the idea of “space” and “place” outlined by Yi Fu Tuan. The main arc of Annihilation is in how the Biologist’s perception of Area X goes from a space, to a place, and how that sense of place changes. We use these two words interchangeably, but in the realm of geocriticism, the two words have distinct, meanings. “Space” is the physical area – the natural, and physical world – that a person can move around in. All locations, natural or man-made, are held together in our concept of “space”. A “place”, then, is a particular point in the world. Places are mental constructs. We take certain points within the physical space, and imbue them with our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In attaching our own experiences and feelings to a specific point in space, we create a “place”, which is now separate from the rest of the space around it. Yi-Fu Tuan writes about this extensively in his book Space and Place, saying that a “place” is any point in the landscape that catches our eye:
“Place is whatever stable object catches our attention. As we look at a panoramic scene our eyes pause at points of interest. Each pause is time enough to create an image of place that looms momentarily large in our view.” (Tuan, 161)
This doesn’t mean that a point in space has to be inherently beautiful to become a place, but it has to draw a person’s attention and become an object in their mind. This idea of space and place works on the same function as a person’s perception being their reality. A person’s sense of place, and individual places they might know – built on their past experiences, and impressions – can and will be different than the next person’s.
Because a person’s perception of a place is built on experience, an idea of place is likely to change over time – “concept depends on experience” (Tuan, 170). This is an important point in Annihilation, in comparing the Biologist’s first impressions of Area X, with her perception of Area X at the end of the novel. A person’s idea of a place can grow and shift over time, able to be “elicited and clarified by questioning, directed first at the concrete and then at the more abstract” (170). A person’s perception of “home” is a good example of how a place, living as a person’s idea, is able to change. For example, “home” might just refer to a person’s immediate surroundings – the collection of rooms, furniture, and ceilings that makes up a person’s physical surroundings in their house. As a person gets more familiar with their surrounding area, their idea of “home” expands. “Home” goes from an idea to represent a physical house, to something more abstract. “Home” can be a collection of memories and experiences tethered to this area, and does not have a set limit to how big the idea itself can be.
The theoretical framework of geocriticism builds on Yi Fu Tuan’s ideas of “space”, “place”, and human perception. Geocriticism is the study of the specific place, setting, or environment of a novel. Understanding a novel’s setting is as important as other, traditional literary studies, like themes and character. Whether or not the place being studied has a real life correlation, like London in Great Expectations, or has takes certain liberties with a real life location, like London in Gravity’s Rainbow, or is a complete fantasy, like London in Neverwhere, the setting of a novel can be used as a lens to study its real world counterpart. An author’s handling of place within their work is influenced by their own perceptions of the real world.
Robert Tally’s Topophrenia is a collection of essays about his studies in geocriticism – outlining the general aims and work of the literary theory, and providing examples of using geocriticism to study a novel’s sense of place. Where Yi Fu Tuan says that “place” is an idea a person creates, and builds, when they become familiar with a specific point in space, Tally furthers the idea by saying that “place is always exerting its influence or making itself known in the text” (Tally, 17). It is impossible for a writer to tell a story without establishing a sense of place for the characters of the story, regardless of whether the place is fully fleshed out in multiple chapters of “world building”, or described in a single sentence. Tally continues this idea in the same essay, saying that a geocritical reading of a novel “like actual mapmaking, must register various types of place [in the novel] at the same time as it tries to account for them” (17). According to Tally, if you want to properly understand a novel, you have to pay attention to its setting, and how the setting may change over time. This means paying attention to the specific time and place of the novel, how the setting influences the characters and events of the novel, and how the setting – like the characters – is capable of changing over the course of the story.
Of course, if we look to a novel to view how a writer expresses their sense of space and place – which comes from their unique experiences in the real world – then it might seem strange to use Annihilation, because if Area X is an alien-made landscape then there shouldn’t be any real-world counterparts. Fortunately, Tally has written about this, too:
“The referentiality of fiction … allows it to point to a recognizable place – real, imaginary, or a bit of both at once – while also transforming that place, making it part of a fictional world. In this sense geocriticism allows us to understand “real” places by understanding their fundamental fictionality, and vice versa … We understand ‘fictional’ spaces by grasping their own levels of reality as they become part of our world.” (Tally, 40)
The “place” of a novel does not have to be based on a literal spot in the real world to be valuable to geocriticism. Fictional places, like Area X, have value in the parallels they have with the real world. There is no Area X in the reader’s world, but the physical descriptions of Annihilation’s environment – pine trees, small bogs, oceans – are meant to be recognizable to the reader as parts of their own environment. In studying the “place” of Annihilation, we aren’t meant to look at Area X as Jeff VanDermeer’s critiquing of any particular place in the physical world, but a discussion of the natural world in general. In the same way that Tally says that geocriticism allows us “to consider the degree which our own perceptions of space and place come to determine our attitudes toward the world and all within it” (Tally, 49), Annihilation asks the reader to engage with their own perceptions of their natural space, and places, and change this engagement for the better.
Annihilation; Living Spaces
There’s a recurring idea in Annihilation that Area X is, in its own way, alive. Area X, like the humans trapped within it, is sentient, which means that it’s able to acknowledge itself as a living being. Area X can respond to what happens within it. This is shown in different, intangible ways throughout the story – the way Area X grows, or the way it assumes different parts of the world around it to change – but also, literally, in the “Tower”. The Tower is a massive, cylindrical structure that extends beneath the earth of Area X, seemingly forever. It has a single, “stone” stairway that leads downward, with various landings that a person can stop and rest on. On the walls of the tower is a single, long message that’s being written in biological matter, like moss and fungi, by an unknown entity. The Tower did not exist in the landscape before Area X, which means that the Tower has to be a part of Area X.
There are two ways to look at the Tower as a “living space”. The first is in its physical qualities, as perceived by the narrator. When the Biologist first encounters the Tower, she describes it in its relation to living things :
“Something about the idea of a tower that headed straight down played with a twinned sensation of vertigo and a fascination with structure … I kept seeing the inside of nautilus shells and other naturally occurring patterns balanced against a sudden leap off a cliff into the unknown” (VanderMeer, 10).
The Tower, which has no apparent meaning or creation, is difficult for the Biologist to properly understand, so she uses recognizable – animal – qualities of the structure as a reference point. The Tower initially appears to be human made, with stairs and landings like a lighthouse, but the Biologist has to frame her idea of the Tower’s “place” as something that’s alive, like a nautilus, to make sense of it.
This idea of the Tower being natural, or organic, is continued – “The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat” (VanderMeer, 28). Where, in the previous quote, the Biologist matched the structure of the Tower with organic structures in her mind, now the Biologist focuses on the actual, living qualities of the structure. The Tower, just by being a structure that can breathe, and demands to be understood naturally, is important because it shows VanderMeer subverting the expectations of geocriticism outlined in Topophrenia. Instead of creating a purely physical setting, for the characters of Annihilation to move and change through, Area X is a living, breathing environment. It’s different from the idioms we use for our natural world – where we say that the world around us is alive because it’s part of an ecosystem that can change over time – Area X is literally alive. If you believe that the Tower was created by Area X, and is a part of Area X, then the next logical step is that, like the Tower, Area X has a kind of sentience that is on par with humans and non-human animals.
The second way of looking at the Tower as a living space is through its literal writing on the walls. As stated earlier, when the Biologist descends into the Tower, she finds a message that’s written in biological matter that extends from the first floor down to the depths of the structure. For the sake of this paper, the actual message of the words is not as important as the fact that the words exist within the tower, and are living themselves. The Biologist puts it this way:
“Whole ecosystems had been born and now flourished among the words, dependent on them, before dying off as the words faded. But this was a side effect of creating the right conditions, a viable habitat. It was important only in that the adaptations of the creatures living in the words could tell me something about the tower.” (VanderMeer, 60)
It’s tempting to look at the words in the Tower as being written, in the same way that I am using human writing to convey these ideas about Annihilation within the bounds of this paper, but that would be misinterpreting the point of the Tower’s writing altogether. The words in the Tower were never written, but formed from the natural elements of the tower. The words are tiny, living ecosystems made of spores and fungi, that live and breathe with the tower. This leaves us with two ways to look at the Tower as a “living space”, like Charles Eisenstein’s “living planet”. The first is that the Tower is alive in the sense that it has the right conditions for natural life that allows the biological words within the tower to thrive. The second is that, because the words exist, it’s logical to assume that the entire Tower is a living space – outside of just being one unified ecosystem – because it is capable of communication. Unlike other settings, or traditional environments, Area X has an agency that it is able to express to the Biologist.
Annihilation; Relationship with Living Spaces
Towards the end of the novel, the Biologist takes a moment to reflect on all of the different, specific places that have been important to her in her life:
A swimming pool. A rocky bay. An empty lot. A tower. A lighthouse. These things are real and not real. They exist and do not exist. I remake them in my mind with every new thought, every remembered detail, and each time they are slightly different. Sometimes they are camouflage or disguises. Sometimes they are slightly more truthful.” (VanderMeer, 125)
Based on our earlier discussion of space and place, as well as geocriticism, the Biologist’s sentiments are in line with Robert Tally’s and Yi Fu Tuan’s. Her places are “real” in the sense that they exist in the physical world, but her unique perceptions of them are not “real”. They are specific to her, and liable to change based on the events of her life. You can extend this idea to the relationship the Biologist develops with Area X. Her experiences within Annihilation change her relationship with her idea of Area X, and through that, her relationship to the environment of Area X itself.
When the Biologist first encounters the words in the tower, she becomes “contaminated” by some natural agent within them. As the novel progresses, she starts to get assumed by Area X. She becomes more and more in tune with the environment around her, and is able to understand the wants, feelings and desires of the natural space. She is able to observe smaller, minute details of the environment – “I saw each drop [of rain] fall as a perfect, faceted liquid diamond, refracting light even in the gloom” (VanderMeer, 50). The Biologist’s contamination is weakening the walls between “her”, and her environment. Even nonliving objects, like the wind – “the wind was something alive; it entered every pore of me and it, too, had a smell” (50) – get some sense of presence and life within the Biologist’s mind.
We can compare the Biologist’s language at this point, to her first description of her surroundings in Area X – “We were on a dirt trail strewn with pebbles, dead leaves, and pine needles damp to the touch” (VanderMeer, 8). Where, after the Biologist’s change she is able to describe the many, distinct impressions given off by her natural environment, at this point she describes it as mere physical space. It’s not that her first impression of Area X is bland, or lifeless, but more that the Biologist initially describes her surroundings as a collection of physical things and nonhuman animals, and later sees it as a complicated, unified whole. In fact, when the Biologist first enters Area X, she chooses to imagine it as “simply a protected wildlife refuge” (VanderMeer, 9), which renders it in her mind as a simple, physical setting.
But as we’ve seen earlier, where the Biologist initially sees Area X as mere space – a container for living things like herself – her perception of the “place” of Area X flips. To the Biologist, and through extension the reader, Area X becomes a single, living thing and of itself. Later in the novel, the Biologist remarks on this change of perception:
“It was as if I traveled through the landscape with the sound of an expressive and intense aria playing in my ears. Everything was imbued with emotion, awash in it, and … the strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of all, the sense of waiting, brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy.” (VanderMeer, 59)
It’s not just that the Biologist is recognizing Area X as a living space here, or that she can see that it has agency. The Biologist’s experience within Area X allows her to develop a relationship with her natural surroundings, and that relationship is built on empathy. Empathy is the ability for someone to recognize the emotions in another living thing – human, or nonhuman animal – and feel a form of that emotion within themself. The fact that the Biologist remarks on the feeling of Area X – “everything was imbued with emotion” – clues us to the fact that she is experiencing a form of empathy for her natural environment. She is able to feel an approximation of Area X’s emotions. Her contamination in the tower doesn’t just change her perception of Area X as a place, but also her relationship with the natural environment of Area X. She is able to recognize emotions that she herself can feel, and has felt, from the non-human aspects of Area X – from the trees, or the wind, or the sea.
Empathy and Area X
Within Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer creates a living space and imagines the reader to perceive their own spaces as alive – but he doesn’t stop there. Area X is not a “natural” space in the sense that it comes from Earth, and it’s not something that, for the characters of Annihilation, can have a concrete meaning. However, it can be understood in the sense that it’s wants and feelings are expressible, and can be intuited. The Biologist doesn’t just understand her environment in the way a person understands a forest by studying it’s ecology, she empathizes with it. Her arc in the novel is in understanding that Area X is a living, unified space, and beginning to (just barely) understand how it feels.
I started this paper by saying that Annihilation helps with humankind’s perception of the planet as a collection of commodities. This is because of its treatment of space and place. The Biologist’s changing view of Area X, her change of “place” built on her communication with the Tower and with herself, renders Area X as a character within the novel. This is in line with Robert Tally’s discussion of geocriticism, where the setting of a novel has to be studied as something that has value and influence on the characters for the novel to be properly understood. Also, because Jeff VanderMeer borrows aspects of our own forests and ecosystems in his characterization of Area X, we are meant to read through Area X as a discussion for our own natural spaces. Like Area X – speculative, unknowable – we are meant to perceive the natural spaces around us as living spaces, capable of wants and needs. We are meant to extend our empathy from other humans, and animals, to the environment that houses these beings as well.
And it seems like Charles Eisenstein, who coined the “Living Planet” idea earlier in the paper, has also done his research in space and place:
“When we see the places and ecologies of this planet as living beings and not ensembles of data, we realize the necessity of intimate place-based knowledge.”
Studying our own perceptions of place, of how we view the world around us, has legitimate value. Eisenstein, paired with VanderMeer, make it exceedingly clear that a lasting solution to climate change has to come from humankind rethinking its relationship to the natural world. This is a gradual process, one that has to happen over the course of multiple generations, but it is achievable. Annihilation, speculative fiction or not, is an important step in the process of creating a new, lasting, relationship to the natural world.