Annihilation and The Limits of Genre

I had a “conversation” with a film critic on twitter some weeks ago.  He asked why the genres of science fiction and fantasy were so often linked together.  He explained that he thought they were obviously distinct, and while there were other genre combos, such as horror and thriller, they were more nebulous in their distinction while there was “obviously” a clear difference between science fiction and fantasy.

I made a reply to him that genres are merely for “marketing” and the reason sci-fi and fantasy were linked together had more to do with their overlapping fandoms.  It is rare to name a science fiction writer whose work has never overlapped into the fantasy genre and vice versa.  He responded to me rather flippantly that he did not define genre this way but by “audience expectations.”  I was a bit annoyed with this kind of shallow assertion from a film school educated professional critic. I was also annoyed at the people who tweeted at me to inform me they only liked sci-fi and not fantasy, or vice versa, because while I did not doubt this could be true, our whole argument was about definitions to begin with.

I responded, and I got the impression my responses were not welcome, by pointing out that sci-fi and fantasy ARE not easily defined.  What I suggested was that by judging based on film was misleading to begin with, since true science fiction films were very rare.  Alien is as much a horror film as it is sci-fi for instance, and Terminator is an action film with sci-fi elements.  The vast majority of sci-fi films are either action or horror films.  A true science fiction film, like say, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are very rare.

I then started mentioning the variety of literary subgenres within science fiction that never appear in films, as well as the fact alternative history is considered science fiction whether it includes technology or not.   Fantasy has a number of these genres as well, including magic realism which is often not called fantasy at all despite very clearly being fantasy.  He did not respond to any of these literary examples, most likely because he was unaware of the distinctions of genre in literature as opposed to film.   Realizing this was a lost cause I returned to talking about film.

My final attempt to convince him was in reference to the film Mother! which many felt had been mis-marketed.  The film was marketed as a horror film but was far too arty and strange to satisfy the mainstream horror audience.  I thought this kind of case easily refuted his definition of genre being defined by the audience expectations because it is clearly horror, but was rejected when marketed to that audience.  He tried to slide out of that problem by claiming that subgenres were making things too complex, but I countered that “art house horror” was not a subgenre, that every movie labeled “art house horror” would have been considered mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s.  If “audience expectations” were the metric of what made a genre a genre, then those expectations changing from decade to decade, with things that would clearly have been in that genre a previous decade are now labeled not in that genre, then there is no way to make a clear demarcation between genres at all.  As I started saying before, genres are a label for marketing and have no meaning beyond marketing.  “Audience expectations” is itself just another marketing term.

As you might imagine, this was a very frustrating conversation.  He seemed to either not want to or be incapable of understanding the points I was making.  Most of my points he never responded to and the ones he did he misunderstood so badly that I wanted to bang my head against the wall.  In retrospect, I mistook his  desire to have a playful conversation with his twitter followers for a serious philosophical discussion, but that doesn’t excuse his obtuseness to me completely.  Somebody who writes about art for a living should not be such a dullard.  The last tweet I sent his way was about the book Annihilation, soon to become a movie,  which he ignored.

Annihilation is a 2014 novel by the Jeff Vandermeer that is about to be released as a motion picture.  The adaptation, written and directed by Alex Garland, does not look to be a faithful one.  Once again, it seems Hollywood has turned an interesting and original work of speculative fiction into a boilerplate monster movie.  Many of the scenes that are in the trailer for this film never appear in the book.  There is another obvious change in that a character that never ended up going on the expedition into “Area X” is shown to be accompanying the other characters.  This is probably for no other reason than the film needs an extra potential victim for its monsters to chomp on.  If there was ever a film that illustrated that mediums limitations on depicting serious genre work, this is probably the film.

What makes Annihilation an interesting novel is that it combines too very specific ideas about genre and sets them against each other philosophically.  It is a work of “sci-fi-horror” just as its film version seems to be, but the content is likely very different.  Vandermeer calls his style “weird fiction”, a term used for pulp writers of speculative fiction in the early twentieth century.  the term shows how much and how little Vandermeer cares for genre.  Like the discussion I had with the film critic, there is a certain way in which expectations are part of the process, but this work itself has become very polarizing among sci-fi readers, which I believe was its intent after all. How useful is a genre label when the author is intentionally using that label not to tell the reader what to expect, but to deliberately fuck with their heads?

The plot of Annihilation is about four women entering the mysterious “Area X” where previous missions have led to various fatal reactions.  Why they keep sending people in at this point is anybody’s guess.  The implication is that it is in the name of science. Annihilation had the basic plot outline of a classic 1950s or early 60s  science fiction novel.  In these novels science is the highest calling a person can have, and most of these novels are about the wonder of human beings at trying to understand the universe through science.  Think mid-career Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and you are on the right track.   Every other element in the novel works against the assumptions one makes about this kind of premise.

While its plot is pure sci-fi, the style in which Annihilation is written is pure existential horror.  The novel is narrated by “The Biologist.”  Her husband was a member of a previous mission into Area X and her primary motivation is to find out what exactly he saw.  While traditional sci-fi is all about the wonder of scientific discovery, Annihilation openly mocks this naïve impulse.   The obvious touchstone is Lovecraft, who explicitly created a universe in which human’s are naively ignorant of just how horrific reality is, and once they seek the truth behind the curtain madness is the only response they could possibly have.  There is a key scene in the novel where the narrator discovers a room full of journals, the sum total of all the knowledge of every person who has ever entered Area X, all of which turns out to be completely useless.

Vandermeer’s sci-fi novel could be seen as anti-science by some.  I prefer to think of it as a satirical critique of the naïve optimism of early sci-fi, as well as a philosophical meditation on the limits of science. None of the characters have a name, only a job description.  The narrator tells us that names are useless when a person has a job.  People are defined by what they do, not where they came from.  A science fiction novel narrated by an existentialist is an interesting conceit, but one I’m not surprised rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Many will find this book creepy, but it mostly just made me laugh.  Not the response that may have been intended but a welcome one nonetheless.

It may seem that I have spoiled the whole novel, but in reality I haven’t.  The enjoyment of Annhilation is in its atmosphere, not its story or its character development. This is where Vandermeer connects with the tradition of “weird fiction” but I feel as if he may have done better than a lot of his forbearers.   Is Annhilation sci-fi?  it speculates about science but in a way that is not concrete.  A person could argue that none of the things that happen in the book are based on science at all, some might be impossible and that places the novel squarely in “fantasy.”  Isn’t the only difference between sci-fi and fantasy, taking out the kind of sword and sorcery fantasy that is its own subgenres onto itself, that there is an explanation.  Annihilation offers no explanation by design, but almost nobody would call it a fantasy novel, and I’m stuck for an intellectual justification for this distinction other than the book talks about science projects involving frogs a few times.

What the book seems most definitely to be to me is a horror novel.  It is worth noting that horror is the only genre named for an emotion.  For me, this makes it one of the easiest genres to identify.  If a work creates a strong sense of unease, creepiness, or at the most extreme end of the spectrum, terror, then it can be said to be a work of horror.  As the aforementioned film critic said, there is horror and thriller but the distinction between them is nebulous.  I don’t think so.  I actually think the distinction is easier to make than sci-fi and fantasy.  A “thriller” wants to titillate and excite, but doesn’t necessarily want to make you feel unnerved about the nature of your existence.

The trouble is there are some people who will only use the term horror for works that are supernatural.  To me, a work like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is clearly horror, but because it has no supernatural element there are people who will insist it is a thriller or crime novel.  By this definition shouldn’t sci-fi-horror be impossible?  Sure, it deals with things that do to exist, but if it is sci-fi it is within the realm of possibility.

Around and around we go.   If Annihilation has a point, then it is that human claims to knowledge and the quest to actually know things is based on a silly notion of our own importance.  That is why the conversation over genre seems to defy this book so aggressively.  Not only does it resist any labels you want to attach to it, it mocks you for trying to put it into such a box in the first place.