Two Films, Two Books: Stalker and Annihilation (Part I)

X Marks the Spot

Just finished reading the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer and I have to say, there is a quite a number of things to unpack. Probably controversially, I would say the first book, Annihilation, is by some margin the strongest in the series by virtue of its purity of purpose – building tension and atmosphere to accompany a slow descent into the mysterious Area X. In many ways, Area X is the main character of the series, and it comes out of a rich tradition of the SF trope of the Zone of Alienation, a deserted area where normal laws of nature no longer apply. What makes Area X different?

Roadside picnic

Less famous than the Tarkovski film, the novel that inspired it is still a supreme achievent of Eastern Bloc SF. The Zone of the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic is often confused or conflated nowadays in the West with our real-life Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, perhaps because of its authors' Russian-ness (even though Chernobyl is located in the Ukraine rather than Russia) or maybe because of their intentional blending in the magnificent 2000s shooter series Stalker: Shadows of Chernobyl[1]. The Strugatskys, however, wrote well before Chernobyl and set their fable of the human condition in a different, non-Soviet country explicitly so that any ironic critique of an overly optimistic, naive scientific response to the uncomprehensible could not have reasonably be construed as criticism of the Soviet scientific establishment, whose achievements were rightly a point of pride to that nation.

The Zone serves, here, a very different function than Area X. If the Zone is to be treated as an extended metaphor, an interpretation strongly supported by the text, and in the light of the Strugatskys' concern with the idea of progress visible especially in their works set in what in the West is usually termed the Noon universe, the Zone has no intrinsic meaning or purpose, nor ones imparted by its mysterious creators – these are projected in from the outside by the stalkers and the researchers, the woodland animals cautiously sneaking in to scavange the scraps about the abandoned roadside picnic. Unable to interpret the Zone scientifically due to insufficiently progressed scientific understanding, the characters interpret it mythologically, as if it were an artifact of a merciless God, not unlike the way more primitive[2] human cultures interpret the actions and technology of the Earth-borne progressors[3] in other Strugatsky works. Naturally, once the gauntlet is run, all tests braved, the Zone demands a sacrifice as payment for the fulfillment of desire. Human imaginations project very human meanings onto the incomprehensible, in a sort of cargo-cult anthromorphisation of what is, essentially, both unimportant and most important, as a repository and projection of a potential to gain limitless enjoyment.

This is an iconic articulation of the sense of wonder associated with the idea of a changed zone, a Zone of Alienation, and certainly one of the strongest in all of SF – but nowadays this approach can seem a bit tired, even reductionist. As in most classic SF, this kind of effect is not quite the same the Romantic wonder of the Sublime – rather, it is an amazement rooted in a total ignorance of the how and why, a kind of “sufficiently advanced technology”[4] as to be fully miraculous, but still be achieved naturalistically. Therefore, the resolution to the mystery of the Zone collapses into the simpler problem of technological insufficiency, and not one of linguistic or epistemological inadequacy.


The idea of an Area X actually existing is fascinating. By virtue of the entirety of mythology, both classical and modern, there are proposed several – haunted places, shunned places, places where one can meet the Devil at night, at a crossroads (Xroads?). Places where people, cars, ships and planes go missing. Places kept under a tight lockdown. What are they hiding in there? Are they trying to keep you out, or something else in?

Yet by the same token, the whole world is like that, in a way. People and objects disappear all the time, and all manner of bizarre and inexplicable events happen all over the place. There could be an interesting reason behind all of that. But Annihilation is not about that. It’s about learning to accept the chaos, the unpredictability, the emergent phenomena, to coexist with it all. The whole Southern Reach trilogy in fact is about systems, systems and processes – ecosystems, bureaucracies, unseen links between people, systems of authority and control, systems of possibilities and growth. Area X is itself such a system, its processes disturbed by periodic invasion and colonisation by the outside via “expeditions” with ill-defined boundaries, just like the Area itself. The volunteers are given woefully incomplete and inaccurate information, and they are not given a clear mission. But even as it is colonised, it colonises back.

Area X is slowly but surely expanding, and not just geographically. It incorporates into itself any compatible outsider – all others it kills or mutilates beyond recognition, to be used as compost for the lush natural landscape. Because Area X is first and foremost what one would call an untouched natural paradise – except, of course, it is everything but untouched. Remnants of human habitation abound, and certain landmarks bear the marks of brutal violence. The lighthouse overlooking the Area has a hidden hatch with hundreds of decomposing notebooks brought by the many expeditions – much more than publicly known. And, of course, there is an all-encompassing sense of being watched, as if the presence in Area X is a sort of warden of this hyperreal nature reserve. It even sends out probes into the outside by way of simple-minded clones of the expedition members – as tendrils? Feelers? Counter-colonisers?

There is an air of Lovecraftian inevitability to Annihilation that I quite liked. Fast enough to feel the immediate weight of the characters' thoughts and actions but ponderous enough to build atmosphere and obliquely signal certain ideas, the prose is a potent and eclectic mix of psychedelic nature writing, slimy Lovecraftian horror, and metaphor for climate change. The Area X we see is mainly through the eyes of the Biologist, a taciturn, anti-social, but also perceptive and empathetic character, alienated from people but feeling right at home in the natural surroundings. She is the perfect protagonist to help us appreciate the intricate beauty in the underlying systems of what would otherwise seem a place of incomprehensible terror.


When compared to the classic SF scientistic approach, which privileges rational understanding unconditionally and implicitly assumes a certain logical positivist worldview coupled with a thoroughly humanist value system, relegating lack of understanding to a subordinate, purely aesthetic sense of wonder, this systems-based approach feels fresh because it comes from a place of genuine introspection into the methodologies of science, the application of instrumental reason. Has it indeed brought about greater understanding of the previously incomprehensible? A more rational today than yesterday was? What of the impact on the environment? What of questions that are not scientific to begin with?

There are no satisfactory, non-ambiguous answers to these questions, and likewise Annihilation offers precious few for its own mysteries. Yet in this case the journey, the process, truly is the very point of the whole exercise, just like the disturbing, nonsense, infinitely recursive phrase haunting the text of Anninihilation retains a certain twisted beauty, even as it goes on forever in the darkness:

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been…


  1. Stalker: Shadows of Chernobyl
  2. Primitive in the sense of a different level of technological development from 22nd century Earth society (see this article)
  3. Human quasi-intelligence operative active on less-advanced human planets, acting undercover in order to help speed up scientific and social progress on those planets
  4. Arthur C. Clarke, “Clarke’s three laws”