In 2014, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation presented readers with the strangest of slow violences. With “slow violence”, I am referring to Rob Nixon’s naming of the creeping suffering that results from gradual violent processes: climate change, chemical spills, and the aftermath of war (Nixon 2013). When VanderMeer’s biologist first enters Area X, a heavily militarized zone on the coast of the American Southeast, she makes note of it’s haunting beauty saying:

“The effect of [Area X] cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.” (Vandermeer 2014, p 6)

Evoking colonization is purposeful here: there is a sense that degradation happens slowly and then all at once, but with militant purpose. 

         To recap: in Annihilation, a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and an anthropologist are secreted away by the United States military to breach the boundary of a mystery. Area X, hidden behind some sort of energy field, is a riotous merging of pristine but unrecognizable ecosystems (all empty of humans as we know them) and altered organisms. The military sends in this group of researchers to try to understand Area X and, in doing so, prevent its slow consumption of the landscape. In positioning the exploration of Area X’s slow violence as a military endeavor, VanderMeer adjusts the lens of climate fiction, presenting radically altered landscapes as a matter of national security.

         This is not without precedence. To explore Annihilation’s framing of climate as a security issue, I will draw from two theorists: Joseph Masco and Amitav Ghosh. In Masco’s 2010 piece on planetary crises entitled “Bad Weather”, he makes note of the Bush administration’s assessment of Hurricane Katrina:

“It’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by a – the worst kind of weapon you can imagine. (President George Bush surveying the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina in Alabama, 2 September 2005)” (from Masco 2010).

While Masco’s primary argument is focused on powerful governments’ assessments of climate events such as Hurricane Katrina as being proximate to nuclear war, we can see from the quote above that in a post-9/11 United States, disasters and their effects are situated as matters of national security. As Masco puts it, “mirroring the initial security state reactions to scientific studies of the health effects of fallout in the 1950s, or of nuclear winter in the 1980s, climate change has been positioned as a threat to US military policy” (2010). In Annihilation, we are presented with an extension of this argument: that slow cataclysms are as much a matter of national security as acute disasters like hurricanes are and that, no matter how hard the military might try, those cataclysms are beyond their ability to control. It is, I would guess, no coincidence that both Area X and Hurricane Katrina exerted their primary impact in the same geographic location and were met with the same ineffective response from national agencies.

         This project as undertaken by VanderMeer in Annihilation establishes the novel as a product of post-Katrina climate anxiety in the United States. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh makes the case that science fiction is uniquely positioned to contend with climate change and that climate change itself is a matter of national security (2018). While these are controversial statements, they bear their uncanny fruits in Annihilation. Let’s return to the quote at the beginning of this essay. VanderMeer’s conception of the climate crisis is one of desolation, a complete emptiness or destruction. As the effects of climate change continue to degrade the boundaries that national governments (especially that of the United States) hold dear– national identity, economic supremacy, food security, and class boundaries to name a few– they will, as Ghosh and Masco have suggested, take center stage as a crisis of national security interests. 

         VanderMeer complicates this degradation by slowing it down and, finally, rendering it unknowable, not just post-human but completely inhuman. This is a manifestation of the ultimate threat to American military endeavors and supremacy: that all secrets will not be revealed because the keeper of those secrets exists in a form with which no national government is prepared to contend. The causes of climate change may be better documented than the “cause” of Area X, but both manifest as the slow violence that exists at the root of contemporary American climate anxieties. After all, how can we cope with something that we don’t understand and that is too powerful to stop? VanderMeer, Ghosh, and Masco are probing the ability of national security organizations to adequately address these anxieties. In Annihilation, VanderMeer points to a certain failure: the security of the United States has already been compromised by an irreparably altered world and there is no going back. The desolation is here and every single one of us has been changed by it.

Works Cited

Ghosh, Amitav. The great derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable. Penguin UK, 

2018.

Masco, Joseph. “Bad weather: On planetary crisis.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (2010): 

7-40.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 

2011.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation: A Novel. Macmillan, 2014.