Bioethics Blogs

Human Contamination: The Infectious Border Crossings of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X by Sophia Booth Magnone

“What if an infection was a message, a brightness a kind of symphony? As a defense? An odd form of communication? If so, the message had not been received, would probably never be received” (Acceptance 490).

“What if containment is a joke?” (Acceptance 576).

It all begins with a thorn: the delicate, glittering prickle of an unidentified plant growing at the base of a lighthouse in a sleepy coastal town. On a peaceful sunny day, the thorn pricks a man’s thumb, an act of violence so mild, so mundane, it scarcely attracts notice. Yet the end of the world starts there, where one organism pierces the skin of another. That tiny rift swells to a full-fledged invasion; the man and his lighthouse become the first targets of an inexplicable transformative force. When the initial cataclysm subsides, the coast has been purged of all human life, its inhabitants dead or transformed beyond recognition. The rest of the world is left only with questions. What exactly happened at the lighthouse? What lies dormant in that lonely landscape? Most importantly, how can whatever remains there be contained?

This nebulous, quietly sinister premise forms the foundation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, collectively known as the Southern Reach trilogy. The novels take place, for the most part, thirty years after the mysterious event at the lighthouse, which has been officially categorized an “environmental disaster” and, by most people, forgotten about entirely. Only the government organization known as the Southern Reach continues to investigate the cordoned-off region now designated “Area X”: from the byzantine depths of its crumbling bureaucracy, the Southern Reach dispatches research expeditions, interprets findings, and scrabbles desperately at the possibility of defensive action.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.