(This analysis is about Jeff Vandermeer’s book Annihilation, not the movie loosely based on the book. It contains some spoilers. I haven’t yet read the second two books in the Southern Reach Trilogy, so this article doesn’t take them into account.)

Jeff Vandermeer said in an interview (after coyly claiming that there’s “probably no such a thing as a misreading” of the book) that the notion of Annihilation as an extended metaphor for the writing process is “not supported in the text,” and that the idea “cracks him up” and makes him “very giggly.” This is a striking example of the familiar observation that writers do not understand their own books, because every page of Annihilation supports the metaphor of the Crawler as a writer figure, and of Area X as the realm of intuition and the subconscious from which a writer must draw his work. Vandermeer, as editor and teacher as well as author, espouses the idea that writers should work with a healthy dose of the intuitive and without overanalyzing a story, so it makes sense that he might not be conscious of everything implied by his book. The book itself is an impassioned argument in favor of this kind of writing. That the central imagery and text for the book is taken directly from one of Vandermeer’s dreams exemplifies this idea.

Vandermeer has made clear in other interviews that he sees the book as being about the relationship, broadly speaking, between Nature and The Human, and the nature imagery in the book supports this view equally well. The book is about both these things, and in fact some key images in the book draw attention to the connections between the subjects of writing, the subconscious, and our relationship with Nature. Our cultural debate about the relationship between conscious intelligence and the subconscious mind is directly analogous to our debate about the relationship between mankind and the natural world, as observed by Terrance McKenna and many other writers. The imagery in Annihilation functions on such a deeply metaphoric level that it represents the place where these two ideas, of nature and the subconscious, join together. This is what gives the book its mythic power: it speaks to age old questions of human culture on several levels at once.

The central image of the book, that of a mysterious text which is grown in fungus on the walls of an underground spiral, announces in the first chapter the book’s preoccupation with writing. (Whenever I see a book in which a mystical or magical form of writing appears, such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, I am alerted to the possibility that the book is a parable about the writer’s craft.) This image, of a text which is literally grown in an underground tower, is an image of a text which is allowed to come into being organically. It is an image of what happens when a writer allows a text to grow into its own necessary shape, following its own inner dictates, by allowing it to be fertilized and nurtured in his subconscious.

The tower’s mirror image in the novel is the lighthouse, and the book emphasizes the similarity of their structures. The lighthouse, an above ground structure, is the conscious intelligent mind to the tower’s subconscious. That it is a lighthouse reinforces it as an image of intelligence and consciousness, of the human drive to understand and analyze. The Biologist herself embodies the competing drives to intuitively become one with nature (the tower, the subconscious) and to analyze and understand it (the lighthouse, the intelligence.) The scene of much carnage and strife, the lighthouse represents as well the ways in which intelligence can be thwarted and can lead to dysfunctional madness. The lighthouse also contains its own mirror image of the organic words found on the walls of the tower: an enormous pile of journals, a collection of conscious memories and ideas about Area X, written by members of previous expeditions who attempted to analyze and understand what is going on there. These journals embody the way that language is used by the conscious mind.

The journals are slowly decomposing; insects, molds and fungus are turning them into humus and returning them gradually to the soil. As an image of the writing process, we see how these repositories of conscious thought, in which individuals describe their lived experience in words, are slowly broken down by nature, to be used by the Crawler as the compost which becomes the text in the tower. It is an image of a writing process in which the stories of individuals, men, women and children that a writer knows personally or reads about in books, are slowly and gradually assimilated down into his subconscious. These fragments of lived human experience are subconsciously transformed, through a mysterious process, and then are reborn as a new text, a text which is allowed to grow organically and intuitively. New characters and plots spontaneously emerge, which may have only an indirect and subtle connection to real people that the writer knows. This is about as good an image of the writing process as I have ever read, especially the writing process as practiced by writers such as Vandermeer, who shun an overly intellectualized composition practice.

The Crawler, awful as it is, is the writer figure in Annihilation, or at least a figure of a deep process which operates within a writer. Writing, in fact, is the Crawler’s central drive and activity. The Crawler is described as having a relentless drive to assimilate and mirror the characteristics and the language of other organisms, the same drive which also motivates most novelists. When the Biologist comes in contact with the Crawler at the book’s climax, it penetrates every cell in her body, and she experiences it as systematically crushing and reforming her brain and her nervous system. Has there every been a more powerful image of how a writer crawls into the skin of his characters and inhabits them, feeling their sensations and thinking their thoughts? That the experience is told from the point of view of the character, rather than that of the writer, might throw some readers off, but that is just a further marker of how far Vandermeer goes in using his imagination in order to become one with his characters. The fact that, unlike a lot of male writers, he chooses to write a book from a woman’s point of view, also shows that he is fundamentally interested in using his imagination to experience what it is like to be the Other.

In the third book of the trilogy Acceptance, the lighthouse keeper Saul has the same dream of the tower which Vandermeer himself had, the dream which provided Vandermeer with the idea for the trilogy, as well as providing the text in the tower. This makes Vandermeer’s (partial) identification with Saul clear. Saul is eventually transformed into the Crawler, reinforcing the idea of the Crawler as a writer figure.

Annihilation’s other interpretation is as a parable about the relation between Nature and Mankind, or more precisely, between biological intelligence, the intelligence exhibited by ecosystems and evolution, and individual human intelligence. Ecosystems do not have intelligence in the same sense that people do, but they are, like brains, highly networked systems which solve problems and create designs. Forests, in particular, have recently been shown to have extensive physical networks, constantly sending information back and forth between trees and plants. Biological and human intelligence work through entirely different mechanisms, and, unlike people, ecosystems may take tens of thousands of years to develop new designs. But the design of any plant, animal, or insect is more sophisticated, by several orders of magnitude, than anything ever designed by human intelligence, an observation which is made by Vandermeer in another interview about the book. Although human intelligence has designed spaceships that have travelled to the Moon and to Mars, there is a very real sense in which biological intelligence is thousands of times smarter than human intelligence will ever be.

As McKenna and others point out, people tend to identify the subconscious mind with Nature, and with good reason. Human intuition comes from lower down on our brain stem, and is that part within us which is most strongly connected to biological drives. This identification of the subconscious with nature is what allows the same images in the book to refer to both of them.

The question of the proper relationship between human intelligence and nature, as well as the proper relationship between our conscious thoughts and our subconscious, may be the central question of human culture, and different cultures approach these questions very differently. The way a practitioner of Haitian Vodun views the role of the subconscious is very different from the way an atheist computer programmer does. The way that the aboriginal peoples of North America view their relationship with nature is very different from the view of executives at Monsanto.

Human intelligence also, to a truly fantastic degree, tends to overvalue itself. The human mind has an enormously high regard for its own power and importance, despite overwhelming evidence of its limitations, incompetence, and destructiveness. This tendency of the human mind to have a very high opinion of itself, while simultaneously undervaluing the power of ecological intelligence, may well be the greatest danger of the 21st century. Vandermeer appears to see it this way, judging the harsh depiction in the trilogy of human folly and its complete inability to understand or respond to the changes brought by Area X (especially in the second book Authority).

These cultural dichotomies of Nature/Man and Subconscious/Conscious, are also exhibited in the oppression of women, since women are viewed as being “closer to nature.” (This prejudice may be rooted in the fact that women experience the biological process of reproduction in a more overwhelmingly physical, bodily way than men do.) Vandermeer himself is a little bit guilty of indulging in this bias, as he uses his female Biologist as the novel’s symbol of a person who is close to nature and susceptible to its allure, although he also provides the counterexample of the miltary-trained Surveyor as a way of avoiding the oversimplifying discourse of women=nature. Does he indulge in this bias again in the third book in the trilogy, Acceptance, when he makes the lighthouse keeper Saul, as champion of the lighthouse and of human intelligence, a gay man, and therefore a person who prefers not to embrace women? I’ll have to find out when I read the book. In any case, the Crawler ends up selecting Saul, out of all organisms on earth, as the one most likely to serve as a vessel for its needs.

We live in a time with a growing awareness of the centuries of destruction which mankind has inflicted on nature. We see ourselves as teetering right on the brink of ecological disaster, and our collective guilt about the crimes we have committed against nature lies behind many of our contemporary preoccupations. This guilt about what we have done to nature gives rise to a fear that nature will rise up and strike back at us, reestablishing the ecological balance which we have so drastically disrupted. This fear is a well founded one, since it is inevitable that this will actually happen sooner or later. When the population of one species (man) becomes too large for an ecosystem (earth) to sustain it, the result, one way or another, must be a massive die-off of the species.

Annihilation, then, can be read as a horror fantasy about nature exacting its revenge on mankind, and reestablishing ecological balance. The fact that some of the characters in the trilogy speculate that the Crawler originates from outer space does not alter this interpretation. The Crawler is an image of the biological, ecological drive for life and the drive to create balanced, sustainable life systems, and it doesn’t matter whether this life force originates from earth or from the life forms from another world. In any case, the idea that the revenging force “must come from outer space” is a common one in nature revenge fantasies, because mankind’s power is seen as so overwhelming that nothing native to earth would be capable of stopping it.

One thing stands out as connecting the novel’s metaphors of writing and of nature: the form of the tower/lighthouse closely resembles that of DNA. The tower is a helix, with text winding along its axis. DNA is the repository of the genetic code, and it is a symbolic chemical language which inscribes instructions for amino acids. DNA shows us that language is not a late-evolving mental capacity, unique to humans. Language, the use of symbols to carry information, is the central part of all living organisms. This allows the tower to function both as a metaphor for the writing process and also for the rebalancing power of nature.

At the end of the book, the Biologist distances herself from the idea of “taking sides” in the conflict between the government and Area X, between man and nature. She refuses to view it as a fight of good against evil, and by extension, so does Vandermeer. This refusal to see the Crawler as evil is what prevents Annihilation from being a mere horror fantasy, and elevates it to the level of myth, the kind of myth which has always been most useful to culture: a myth with the power to take us where we need to go next.