SEK: The novel reads very much like the world it describes—utterly familiar, yet slightly off at all points. Was that your intent? (For example, on 59, you describe “Something like a body or a person,” which makes perfect sense, yet is incredibly disturbing. What is like a body or a person that’s not a body or a person?)
JV: I hike a lot in North Florida, and from a distance, things look like other things. A bat can metamorph into a bird when seen closer. A creature on a log becomes just a stubby branch. A seeming tree trunk is actually a bear. You think you are going north, but suddenly, through some daydream of lapse of attention, you get turned around.
These are, in a sense, reminders to us that the real world is stranger than we usually think. Imagine being able to spy on the processes going on around you while even walking down the sidewalk on your street—the plants employing photosynthesis and speaking to each other in chemical emissions, the ants with their pheromone trails, the fungi with their spores. Why, there’s still crowded and noisy cosmopolitan situation all around you, but you can’t experience any of it because your senses are these stunted, incomplete systems.
You’ve got eyes that can’t see the whole spectrum. A cat would laugh at your stupid sense of smell. Your sense of taste is pathetic compared to many creatures. Your sense of touch is put to shame by your average gecko. So the world is in a sense laughing at you anyway, or on some level ignoring you completely, and your sole contribution is the ability to tread too heavily on a dandelion and break its stem. So if we’re honest the world should feel slightly off at times. The world should at times reveal some glint or glimmer of greater processes ongoing. Something like a body or a person. Something like a shadow or a creature. Something like a sudden clue…
SEK: On page 111, you note that the pile of journals describing Area X will soon become Area X itself. This strikes me as a literal version of “contact narratives,” in which what an explorer writes about an area he discovers becomes how future generations understand it. (Describing cities of gold in the “New World” leading explorers to “discover” such cities, even though they only ever existed in print.) Are these books [in "the Southern Reach" trilogy] an exercise in, call it, “creative geography”? Re-shaping the world by describing it?
JV: I must admit my minor in college was Latin American history, and I’m sure there’s a sedimentary layer in the back of my brain that, in soaking all of that conflicted and difficult chronology, has peeked out through some of the observations in Annihilation. I guess I was also thinking of the journals from the prior expeditions as almost being like the bones of the explorers, in word form. This is where they washed up, their instruments useless, all logic revealed as merely construct to push them through the day.
And, yes, there is perhaps a parallel: explorers and exploiters who are culturally so different and from such a different landscape that the very land seems to reject them, even when they seem to have conquered it. I’m not particularly fond of missionaries or of conquerors or empires, all of which strike me as examples of dreaming poorly but, alas, doing so across a vast continuum of human endeavor, to the brutal detriment of all who push back with perhaps a more sustainable and humane vision of the world…
Read the entire interview here.