Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Annihilation is the story of a four-person expedition into a strange region known as Area X where the laws of physics and biology seem to be bent, maybe broken. Fine. You feel like you kinda know where this is going, right? Botched experiment… wormhole… alien alloy… something like that.
You don’t know where it’s going.
Most fiction is recombinatory. That’s not a bad thing! I mean, my novel is recombinatory. You can have a lot of fun with recombination. You deal yourself a hand from the deck of culture and try to make sense of the juxtapositions. I think I just described the process behind all comic books ever. The results can be rich and compelling—all the more so because they’re supported by ideas and images with deep roots.
But! We can’t only recombine. It can’t just be remakes and reboots and remixes forever. Every so often, we need new stuff, too.
Have you ever played one of those collectible card games? Bought a pack of cards, ripped it open, added them to your deck? Annihilation is a foil-wrapped booster pack for weird fiction, loaded with truly original images. Truly original entities.
It’s the first in a trilogy called The Southern Reach. I recently finished Authority, the second, and this is shaping up to be a singular sequence indeed. There’s a clear through-line—a big story unfolding—but Authority isn’t a book that just picks up where the last one left off. Instead, it’s packed full of new pleasures, not only new characters and settings but whole new kinds of writing. If Annihilation is an expedition novel painted with a thick coat of weird, then Authority is a spy novel given the same dark lacquer. And yet, they connect; are unquestionably part of a coherent whole. Which makes me desperate to know what the third book is going to be like–whether it will be some mixture of the two, Jurassic Park meets James Bond, or some third thing entirely.
That feeling—my anticipation—brings me to another thing.
Fiction is really feeling the heat from TV. The very best shows are doing exactly what (many of) the very best novels set out to do, and doing it for much larger audiences. There is a sense of encroachment, and also a sense of defection! Novelists are lining up to write for TV.
I think one of the things that makes TV so much fun at this moment is the release schedule, which is enjoying a kind of Cambrian explosion. A season of TV used to be a pretty standard thing, right? But consider the “seasons” of shows like
- Game of Thrones: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, airing on Sundays for a couple of months, anticipation rising in smaller waves every week.
- Sherlock: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, just three episodes, a sort of disjointed super-movie.
- House of Cards: long-anticipated, and then finally it arrives, all at once.
Whereas a book mainly just… arrives. Thud. If it’s part of a series, there’s another one in a year or two or six. Thud.
But here’s a sign that this Cambrian explosion may yet reach into print.
As I mentioned up above, Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy. The second, Authority, will be released… in a few months’ time. These are all full-length novels. The third, Acceptance, arrives this fall.
That’s crazy! When has a trilogy ever been released rapid-fire in the space of a single calendar year? It’s a schedule that feels, to me, more like TV than publishing. I hope it succeeds, because I’d love to see more innovation along these lines. These days, the rhythm of a story’s release is part of the package.
Anyway, I’m hugely excited about The Southern Reach, and I’m hungry for more like it: more publishing projects that innovate not just on the level of scenes and sentences, but also genre and packaging and timing, all of it, everything. We can’t only recombine. We need to shuffle new ideas into the deck, too. Annihilation, the booster pack, is out this week.