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.


Do We Live In A Dystopia?

Recently, I read the 1968 science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar which came highly recommended to me by several people.   The novel is considered the masterpiece of pulp sci-fi writer John Brunner and one of the most important works of “New Wave Science Fiction.”   It is also considered one of the greatest works of Dystopian fiction ever written, which made me wonder if it really qualified as such a work.

Stand on Zanzibar portrays a fictional world of, then future, 2010 dealing with overpopulation.  Brunner predicted a number of things about the future that actually came true, including twenty-four hour news and domestic terrorism. There are a few things that are off, or are exaggerations of things we already have, and like a lot of science fiction Brunner fails to predict a lot of things that we do have and have changed our lives significantly.  (e.g. cell phones and the internet.)  It borrows techniques and structure from John Dos Passos USA Trilogy”, and as a result creates a futuristic world that feels like it has its own culture, politics and history.

Here is the thing though, it neither seems to fit the dictionary definition of a dystopia, (“An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.”) nor the more academic definition, which is roughly a failed attempt at a Utopia.

Using the broader dictionary definition most science fiction novels set in a future society could be called a dystopian novel.  A story needs to have some level of conflict, and many science fiction stories do this by putting their hero in a future environment that is outright hostile to them.  Looking through any list of sci-fi novels, I would say that 8 out of 10 that take place in the future do not portray the future as pleasant, if not outright totalitarian.

Of course, the dystopian novel that embodies this broad definition that everybody knows is 1984.  George Orwell was writing an allegory about the Soviet Union, and his book was not meant to portray a future, per se, but to give a detailed critique of  a totalitarian state and the methods that would be used to manipulate the populace and keep them in line.  At this, Orwell excelled, and that is why the novel is considered to be a classic, but there is also a way in which the novel “failed”, if one is to look at the more specific definition of what a dystopia is.

The totalitarian government of 1984 seems to just want to crush freedom for “the hell of it” and isn’t the result of trying to fix a problem at all.   Orwell himself was a socialist, and so the issues of Capitalism and Marxism are not really addressed in the novel, but Orwell’s book in general warns about the manipulations of an oppressive state.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is similar to 1984 in this respect, though it concentrates on the aspect of burning books and stopping free thought by manipulating the populace.

The world that Stand on Zanzibar inhabits is not like this.  Western society has become a merging of state and corporation, with imperialism still a common feature, but while the details are different, one of the things that makes Zanzibar such a relevant novel to read still is that it does not differ that much from the world that we currently live in.  Brummer’s whole point was that this world was fucked up, but it doesn’t differ much from a current US where money is speech, and the government spies on its own citizens.  The only totalitarian element that is explicit is the government’s authority to approve the giving birth of children.

So here is the real question, with the popularity of dystopia fiction being on the rise throughout most of this century, do we live in a dystopia now?   That is an interesting question.  We live in a world much closer to the one in Stand at Zanzibar than 1984 or  Fahrenheit 451, but we can see very clearly that our world has moved closer to each of these speculative societies since the works were written and while I am still free to write a blog criticizing this society as much as I want, there is only the slightest chance anybody will listen.  Hell, there is a character in Zanzibar named Chad C. Mulligan who is a celebrated iconoclastic author, and his work is taught in college and his whole point is despite all the money and fame he has earned his work hasn’t encouraged anybody to actively fight the system one iota.

This reminds me of one of the other great works of dystopian fiction, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Huxley portrayed a future where society is manipulated through drugs and media to become increasingly hedonistic.  The vision the ruling government has is purely Utilitarian, but Huxley shows the dangers of having a society that is completely dominated by the seeking of mindless pleasure.  While Orwell and Bradbury were afraid of censorship, Huxley portrays a world where there really is no need for censorship because nobody really cares about anything but their own hedonistic pleasures in the first place.

Huxley’s vision is closer to that more nuanced version of dystopia where the attempt at a utopia has gone horribly wrong.  When I look at that book now I see Huxley predicted a certain mindset that would be created in the middle class during late stage capitalism.  Even with everything collapsing around them these people cannot be moved to action because the constant stream of entertainment, social media and self-medication keeps them perpetually distracted.  The seeking of pleasure has taken over beyond all reason. Still, its hard to imagine anybody looking at a world like the ones Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury create and see them as ideal.  Sure, authoritarians might look at these books and see the methods that could help them accomplish their goals, but in all three of these novels it is unclear what the ruling class actually values and how their authoritarianism is rationalized.

When I read Stand on Zanzibar I found myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut when reading the Chad C. Mulligan bits.  Not that Brunner could have been inspired by Vonnegut, since his breakthrough work Slaughterhouse Five would not be published until a year later,  nor is Mulligan much like Vonnegut in terms of personality, with Mulligan being a  swaggering extrovert, the exact opposite of Vonnegut’s personality.  What I was reminded of was how Vonnegut had spent so much of his work trying to change his audiences whole worldview and been rewarded with practically nothing.

Vonnegut’s first novel. Player Piano, shows the effects of the world under automation. This world is a meritocracy, and it allows people with scientific jobs to flourish while those who do not have that education can only choose the military of low paying civil service jobs.  Vonnegut’s novel warns us about automation in the exact way that it is relevant right now, and we still have not steered clear of the danger with literal decades of warning. The reason is because for some people this “dystopia” where the smart hardworking techies are rewarded and everyone else gets screwed just seems fine and dandy.

Vonnegut would write this kind of dystopian story again.  In his short work Welcome to the Monkey House, a compromise over overpopulation between the people who “know science” and the people who “know morals” results in the population being robbed of their sex drives through drugs.  In Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut created a parody of a straw man for equality, where everybody with any kind of talent is handicapped.  The story is a very sharp and subtle satire of the American mindset of the time, but goes over most people’s heads and it is largely seen as an endorsement of the very thing that it is mocking.

Perhaps the reason that Vonnegut abandoned this “dystopian” satire was because it was largely ineffective.  His later books would steer clear of the sub-genre in order to make his points in different ways, but by the end of his life he was disheartened and thought that his work, while having made him a lot of money and made his name well known, had largely been a failure at changing the world.

Another example of a writer who uses this genre is Margaret Atwood.  Atwood began a dissertation at Harvard University about dystopian fiction but ended up abandoning it.   Parts of it can be read in her book In Other Worlds: Sci-Fi and the Human Imagination and it probably almost certainly inspired her most famous novel The Handmaid‘s Tale, which has already been adapted into both a movie and television series.   Her dystopia is a result of a fertility crisis and as a result women who are fertile become “handmaids” and are forced to carry children for wealthy and powerful men.  Once again, this is, while not an attempt at a utopia, a world that might seem great to men who benefit from it.

There has been an overlap between “feminist science fiction” and dystopia fiction since the beginning.  The 1884 novel Flatland, by mathematician Edwin Abbott, uses a society based on geometric shapes, where men are higher status based on their number of sides and women are only single lines, to satirize both the class structure of 19th century England and sexism.   A favorite example, Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue in 1984, a dystpoian novel about women in a male supremacist future who develop their own language to fight back against the male dominated society.  Both of these novels are satires of what women faced at the times they were written, and historically, and both probably seemed like drivel to many sexist men.

Margaret Atwood has attempted this kind of dystopia on other subjects as well.  Her MadAddam Trilogy warns about the misuse of science by corporations and environmental issues.  Her more recent novel The Heart Goes Last deals with the idea of the financial collapse, private prisons and objectification of women through “sex robots.”  These novels are warnings about where we are headed, and would fall under the label of dystopia, but the question still remains, are we already there?

During the 2016 presidential election many people pointed out the similarities between the issues we are facing now and Octavia Butler’s dystopian novels The Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents.  Many people even pointed out the similarities between a certain fictional president and Donald Trump.  Once trump won this didn’t seem as funny anymore. Butler wrote these novels in the 90s when the economy was booming, so her vision of an economically collapsed US, with heavy racial tensions seems incredibly prophetic.