Annihilation

by

Jeff VanderMeer

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Annihilation: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Everything that the biologist knows about the psychologist comes from observations during training, which amount to little. The biologist recalls training interviews with the psychologist in which she volunteered little about her parents (who were distant and moody), her earliest memories (a stuffed toy she still has, inspecting insects), and her childhood (cheap motels for vacations by the beach). The psychologist also asked about the biologist’s relationship with her husband, which she did not answer. The sessions frustrated the psychologist, but on another level, she commended the biologist for being so “self-contained.”
From the outset, the biologist shows her “self-contained” nature, choosing to keep back much information about herself from the psychologist, showing her innate mistrust of the other woman. This contradicts her earlier assessment that she thought she was open with people. However, the fact that she puts up walls and maintains independence is what allows her to survive Area X and withstand the psychologist’s manipulation.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist approaches the psychologist in the sand in front of the lighthouse; she must have jumped or been pushed out of the lighthouse. She has blood on her jacket and shirt, but she is breathing, and her eyes are open, looking at the ocean but not registering the biologist. She has a gun in her hand, and the biologist takes the weapon and tosses it to the side.
The fact that even the psychologist—who knows the most about the Area—jumped from the lighthouse shows that the nature in Area X is powerful enough to influence anybody. Additionally, as with the members of the other expeditions, trying to go to the lighthouse for safety has only backfired. Instead of providing her with refuge, it makes her an easier target for Area X, again illustrating its power over the human beings who investigate it.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
When the biologist touches the psychologist gently on the shoulder, the psychologist recoils and desperately screams “Annihilation!” over and over again, rattling the biologist. The biologist tries to calm the psychologist and prop her up, though dark blood is seeping around her stomach. The psychologist says she thought she killed the biologist and asks for water, which the biologist gives. She asks where the surveyor is, and the biologist says back at base camp. The psychologist comments that the surveyor didn’t like what the biologist became.
The psychologist’s outburst—which seems to be a hypnotic command that the biologist doesn’t yet understand—reveals how little trust there is between the members, because the psychologist is trying to exert more control over the biologist rather than trusting that she is there to help. The biologist, in turn, is only able to withstand this hypnotic command thanks to the spores’ resistance to hypnosis, reinforcing nature’s power over human manipulation.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The psychologist says that she saw the biologist coming, and that she was like a “flame.” She also tries to hypnotize the biologist once more, but the biologist confesses that she is immune. The biologist asks why the psychologist didn’t shoot her, and the psychologist says that her hand wouldn’t let her pull the trigger. When the biologist asks what happened to the psychologist, she says that she thought the biologist was coming after her on the stairs, trying to kill her. She was so afraid she jumped over the railing. The biologist asks what the thing coming after the psychologist looked like, but the psychologist has no answers.
Again, even the person who supposedly has the most information—the psychologist—doesn’t fully understand Area X’s mysteries either. Nature’s power essentially prompted her death, as she tried to protect herself from nature but ended up fatally injuring herself in the process. In addition, the fact that the biologist is now appearing as a “flame” (because of her brightness caused by the spores) highlights how nature has overtaken the biologist. But it also suggests that the biologist isn’t totally objective about herself. The psychologist can see the biologist’s transformation in a way that the biologist can’t, showing how difficult it is for her to be truly objective about an infection that she is experiencing firsthand.
Themes
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Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
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The biologist then asks what happened with the anthropologist. The psychologist explains she miscalculated—the anthropologist got too close, and the creature reacted, killing the anthropologist and wounding the psychologist. The psychologist also notes that she could tell the biologist was changing, and the psychologist decided to leave because the mission was compromised. The biologist is furious that the psychologist abandoned them.
Again, the incident between the psychologist and the anthropologist only proves that the biologist’s mistrust of the psychologist is well-founded, and that her self-reliance has protected her. The psychologist’s secrecy and lies were so destructive that the anthropologist lost her life at the psychologist’s hands.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist then asks what happens when they cross the border. The psychologist replies cruelly that removing that veil from her mind and letting her access the memories of crossing the border could make her go mad. The biologist says that if the psychologist tries to do anything, she will kill her. When the psychologist asks how many memories she thinks are implanted—even of the world beyond the border—the biologist says she is sure of her here and now, as well as her past, refusing to be shaken.
Here, the psychologist affirms that some mysteries are better left unsatisfied, threatening that the human brain wouldn’t be able to handle full awareness of the border’s mystery. The psychologist also calls the biologist’s reality into question, trying to undermine her memories of herself in the world outside Area X. This further suggests that no one can be objective or truly certain of their memories or perceptions.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
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The biologist tries to get the psychologist to talk about the Crawler and Area X, but the psychologist seems to take pleasure in withholding the answers the biologist desperately needs. She gives a few scraps: the black boxes don’t measure anything—they are simply to keep the expedition calm. And the border is advancing, almost a mile or two at a time.
This is another irony in the Southern Reach’s preparation of the 12th expedition. While the black boxes are supposed to make the women more certain and secure, in reality, they simply made the biologist and others more anxious because they didn’t understand what the boxes truly indicated.
Themes
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The biologist asks more questions—how many expeditions there have been, what the first expedition found. But the psychologist is again vague and obscure, saying only that there are a lot of journals, and that the video from the first expedition is disturbing. The biologist asks what the psychologist knows about her husband, and the psychologist says his journal was very insightful—especially about the biologist.
The biologist’s questions again prove how much she is trying to unravel Area X’s mysteries. But in reality, the biologist also recognizes that the psychologist likely knows little about it—even given all the journals, the mystery has remained unsolved, and she comprehends that some mysteries may never be fully understood.
Themes
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The sky darkens, and the environment seems to become more alive. The biologist asks if she can do anything, and the psychologist simply says to leave her where she is when she dies. She says, dismally, that she should never have come. The biologist asks if anyone has ever really come back from Area X, and the psychologist says not for a long time. She then slips in and out of consciousness. The biologist asks if she knew about the journals before coming, but the psychologist doesn’t respond—she is dead.
The psychologist’s death—leaving only two remaining expedition members—only reinforces how powerful and persistent Area X is. Within days, it has already killed the psychologist and the anthropologist. And, as the psychologist notes, none of the expeditions have been able to withstand Area X’s impacts for a long time.
Themes
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The biologist finds the psychologist’s journal in her jacket. She also sees that under her shirt, her arm was “colonized” by a green-gold fuzziness, which spread from the wound she received from the Crawler. The wound likely caused not just paranoia, but also schizophrenia and delusional behavior. The biologist takes a sample from her arm to examine at base camp.
The psychologist’s injury represents another way in which nature is “colonizing” the expedition members. This word implies that nature (as embodied by the Crawler) has the agency and power to change the human beings irrevocably. Area X was able to make the psychologist so delusional that she jumped to her death.
Themes
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The biologist next looks at the journal, which mostly transcribes the words in the Tower with a few scribbled notes—including one that says, “lighthouse keeper.” She is glad the psychologist did this work so she wouldn’t have to examine the Tower again. On the psychologist’s body, she also finds a tiny handgun strapped to her left calf and a letter in a small envelope with a name starting with an S on it. The biologist thinks that names are a dangerous luxury in Area X—sacrifices shouldn’t get to have names. The biologist tosses the gun and the envelope far across the sand.
The psychologist’s notes reveal that she was as much in the dark as the biologist—she, too, was trying to puzzle out the words in the Tower and make sense of the image of the lighthouse keeper. And yet, like all the others, she was unable to fully solve the mystery. Additionally, the biologist’s thoughts on their names—and her note that they are “sacrifices”—suggests that in Area X, they have lost all humanity and need to blend fully into nature in order to have a hope of surviving this new environment. This includes relinquishing their names, just as the biologist refuses to name herself or any of the expedition’s members.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
In the psychologist’s pants pocket, the biologist finds a paper that includes a list of hypnotic suggestions and the actions that correspond. She also wrote other reminders and notes about each of them. The word “annihilation” is followed by “help induce immediate suicide.”
This haunting revelation illustrates again how the biologist’s mistrust helped to protect her. The psychologist had the ability to kill the other group members by inducing their suicide, and she tried to do so to the biologist just moments before she (the psychologist) died. This underscores how the biologist’s self-reliance has proved useful, because the psychologist was untrustworthy.
Themes
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The biologist’s husband’s life was defined by nightmares he had as a child—nightmares about awful crimes in the basement of a house. A psychiatrist could not help him parse these images, ruling out suppressed memories. But as an adult, her husband went to a classic film festival and saw his nightmares acted out—he must have seen a TV left on at some point when he was young with the horror movie playing. From that moment, he knew he was free, because the nightmares were all an illusion.
The biologist’s recounting of her husband’s childhood trauma relates to the idea that humans are constantly trying to solve the mysteries in their lives. But without an easy answer, like realizing that one’s nightmares were part of a film, continuing to puzzle out images and dreams that don’t make sense can haunt a person, as it did for the biologist’s husband. This ties into the idea that to avoid this fate, sometimes the only way to be fully satisfied about a mystery is to paradoxically recognize that it may never be solved.
Themes
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Then, the night the biologist’s husband told her he was joining the expedition, he told her about dreams he had, swimming through marsh canals or becoming a tree. The experiences in the dreams refreshed him and made him want to go to Area X (he had already had long meetings with recruiters), though the biologist worried about the danger. It did not occur to her at the time that he might have been hypnotized during his meetings. He told her that he needed more of a challenge, and that his work was unfulfilling. She started to wonder why she hadn’t done something like what he was doing, and she couldn’t blame him.
The biologist’s husband’s dreams illustrate that even before arriving in Area X, nature was already exerting its influence over him. This also could have been hypnosis by the expedition’s leaders, as the biologist notes. Regardless, the idea of having an adventure alone in the natural world is what drew him to the expedition—and what drew the biologist here as well.
Themes
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Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
As the biologist stands beside the psychologist’s body, she knows that her husband’s journal will reveal the real nightmares he encountered in Area X. She still blames him for leaving, but at the same time, she begins to believe that there is no place she would rather be than Area X.
Even though the biologist blames her husband for leaving, the fact that she understands his being drawn to Area X suggests her own self-reliance and independence. She understands that she is fundamentally alone in the world, and that the best way to fulfill her desire for solitude is through Area X.
Themes
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The biologist decides it’s better to return to base camp despite the darkness because she doesn’t want to stay the night in the lighthouse. She sets out with her knapsack full of supplies, and as she looks back, she sees a thin green light emanating from the dunes—the psychologist’s wound glowing brightly. A phrase that the biologist saw copied in the psychologist’s journal comes to mind: “There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you.”
The words that come to the biologist’s mind from the psychologist’s notebook could allude to the fact that nature is overtaking the biologist. The “dark flame”—perhaps that same “brightness” that is emanating from the biologist and that is now radiating from the psychologist as well—is an aspect of the nature that will “acquire every part of” her.
Themes
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After an hour of walking, the lighthouse disappears behind the biologist. She walks quietly through the ruined village and the darkness intensifies, because she doesn’t want to use her flashlight. A few minutes later, the moaning starts, filled with anguish and rage. The biologist decides to forge ahead despite her fear, pulling out her flashlight and gun as she makes progress.
The moaning is another mystery that the biologist has not yet solved. Just as she referred to it earlier as being both beautiful and desolate, the biologist doesn’t know how to understand what is happening around her—it is too sublime for her to fully identify or comprehend. Thus, her decision to continue suggests her acceptance that she may never truly understand Area X, but that she simply has to move forward and live her life despite the terror of not knowing how to interpret her surroundings.
Themes
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Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Then, suddenly, something nudges against the biologist’s boot. She points her flashlight at the ground and sees a human face rising out of the earth. But on a closer look, she realizes it’s a mask made of skin—a wide face with some pockmarks, the eyes blank and staring. She feels like she should recognize the features, but she can’t place them. She shines her flashlight ahead and sees more skin-like detritus, sloughed off by some creature.
The human face and skin rising out of the earth is yet another mystery that the biologist can’t fully grasp. It again suggests that nature has overtaken the human beings who have come to Area X, either replicating them or tearing them apart so as to consume them into the earth—once again illustrating nature’s power.
Themes
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Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist continues on, picking up her pace, as the moaning grows louder. There is a thick musk in the air, and a loud thrashing sound begins. She shines her flashlight over the nearby reeds to see movement—an unseen creature thrashing through the reeds, coming after her. She hesitates for a moment, curious to see the creature, but then she runs as fast as she can. She can feel something come at her on her left. She feels its hot breath, but it has too much momentum—and in its dive, it winds up passing her and crashing into the reeds on her right. She does not look back as she runs.
The biologist’s narrow escape from the moaning creature is another example of nature’s persistence in Area X—just like the wild boar that attacked the group on their way to base camp. In both cases, the creatures are a form of nature exerting power over the humans, so that they do not interfere with Area X’s expansion. The biologist narrowly escapes with her life, but her earlier discovery of the human material on the same road suggests that others may not have been so lucky, and that nature is generally more powerful than human beings in Area X.
Themes
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Eventually, the biologist stops. Unable to keep going and make it back to base camp, she climbs a tree to spend the night there. Restless, she drifts in and out of sleep. Sometime before morning, she realizes that her brightness has become literal: her skin is giving off a phosphorescent glow against the darkness. The biologist also remembers the face she saw the night before: it’s the psychologist from the 11th expedition, a man whose interviews she watched. He said, back across the border, that nothing unusual happened in Area X. She realizes then that death is not the same thing here as it is across the border.
The biologist continues to realize that the nature in Area X is taking over her body—so much so that she is literally glowing because of the spores’ infection. Additionally, in recognizing that the face she saw the night before is a man who made it back across the border from the 11th expedition, the book hints that there may be more than one version of the people who explore Area X. This opens up greater mysteries and possibilities about the people who have returned home.
Themes
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The next morning, the biologist continues back to base camp, astounded by a particularly still part of the trail that is both peaceful and watchful, asking you to let down your guard while also keeping you on alert. As she pauses to appreciate the tall grasses, two shots hit the biologist in her left shoulder and left side, sending her down to the base of a hill. Seconds pass, and the biologist crawls along the water, realizing that her brightness is dulling the pain and shock. She realizes it was the surveyor who shot her.
With the surveyor’s decision to shoot the biologist, the book suggests that going it alone and being self-reliant has actually been beneficial to the biologist, because her interactions with other humans have been (and continue to be) deceptive and destructive. In addition, the fact that the biologist is able to survive such injuries because of the brightness in her chest again illustrates the power of nature in Area X—it can make humans powerful enough to withstand otherwise fatal shots.
Themes
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Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The surveyor calls out to the biologist, asking where the psychologist is. The biologist explains that the psychologist jumped from the lighthouse. She begs the surveyor to leave her alone, saying that she’s not the enemy. She insists the surveyor take the supplies from base camp and return to the border—the biologist won’t stop her. The surveyor says the biologist isn’t human anymore, and she should kill herself so that the surveyor doesn’t have to. The biologist insists that she is still human, thinking that the brightness is also a “natural thing.”
The surveyor is so threatened by the biologist that she feels the only way to protect herself is to kill the biologist. Like the biologist, she feels some security in going it alone, because she mistrusts what the biologist might do. In addition, the biologist’s insistence that she is still human perhaps affirms that the biologist isn’t truly objective. Whereas the biologist thinks that the brightness is a “natural thing,” it’s clear that the surveyor doesn’t think so. This hints that the spores are making the biologist believe that what is happening to her is beneficial and right—even if, in reality, it is taking her humanity away.
Themes
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Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
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The biologist can hear the surveyor coming closer, and she sees the surveyor 10 feet ahead of her, crawling through the grass. The biologist doesn’t hesitate, taking out her gun and shooting the surveyor in the head. The surveyor slumps, dead, and the biologist is shocked with herself—she has never killed anyone. She isn’t even sure that she truly killed the surveyor, given the logic of Area X. She wonders if she could have acted differently.
By killing the surveyor, the biologist again illustrates her instincts for self-reliance. Even though she’s on a team, being isolated and mistrustful has helped her thus far, and she knows that going it alone and removing the surveyor as a threat is the only way for her to find peace—even at the expense of the surveyor’s life.
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The biologist doesn’t know what to do: she doesn’t want to take the surveyor back to base camp, but she doesn’t want to leave her there. So, she takes the surveyor in her arms, wading into the nearby murky water. She says she hopes the surveyor forgives her; she forgives the surveyor for shooting at her. She then gently lets the surveyor sink beneath the water before getting out.
The biologist’s release of the surveyor into the water is a kind of symbolic letting go of human relationships. It acknowledges that her mistrust and self-reliance led the biologist to succeed in surviving, even at the cost of destroying others, because she was able to protect herself from their manipulation and violence.
Themes
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As the biologist stands on the trail, she feels the brightness spread even further through her. She feels both fire and ice through her body, and she is numb and delirious. In a vision, she sees the anthropologist, psychologist, and surveyor peering down at her as though through water. In a second vision, she sits beside the moaning creature, her hand upon its head, and in a third vision, she watches a living map of the border. Later, she discovers from thrash marks in the grass that she has been spasming and twitching, experiencing agony and trying to die, though the brightness wouldn’t let that happen.
These various visions, borne out of the biologist’s being overtaken by the brightness, reinforce that nature has completely overcome her and the others. The biologist is now the only remaining member of the expedition, and she has survived only because of her integration into nature (especially because the brightness is powerful enough to prevent her from dying from the gunshots). This is also represented by the fact that she communing with the creatures and the border rather than the other human beings, from whom she seems separated. Lastly, the fact that the other women are peering at her through water mirrors her decision to let go of the surveyor in the water. This perhaps suggests that the biologist has undergone a transformation equivalent to dying or losing her humanity.
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The biologist tries to explain more about the brightness—noting that she has not yet done so because she worried the reader would question her objectivity. It enhances her senses: her hearing, her touch, her smell. All along the path from the lighthouse, she felt a fever overtake her, making her feel faint and also heavy. Her husband would have been more proactive about fighting the brightness, but she knows that any attempt to cure her is futile; she wants to concentrate on the time she has left.
Again, the biologist’s own narration calls into question her objectivity as a narrator. She hid the way that the brightness was affecting her in order to seem more objective, but hiding her heightened senses suggests that she is actively selecting and editing out some of the details in the story—she is anything but objective.
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When the biologist returns to her senses, it is noon the next day, and she has managed to drag herself to base camp. She gulps down almost a gallon of water and can feel the brightness repairing herself. She thinks that it hasn’t spread further through her body because it was busy repairing her. Her cold symptoms have receded, but she can feel something creeping under her skin. She doesn’t trust this feeling of well-being, worried that it’s the calm before another difficult stage. She also worries that to keep the brightness in check, she will have to continue to injure herself.
The biologist recognizes not only how nature has become powerful enough to heal her and to take over her body, but also that it is clouding her judgment. Just as she hasn’t been fully able to appreciate or communicate the changes that the spores have caused, she doesn’t trust that nature might also be shifting her perception of the world—and her perception of her own well-being.
Themes
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Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
At base camp, the biologist sees that the surveyor has destroyed the tent and the scientific data, and that the weapons are dismantled and scattered in pieces around the camp. She finds the surveyor’s journal, but it is completely empty. She had left one final statement on a piece of paper: “the anthropologist tried to come back, but I took care of her.” The biologist thinks that the surveyor was either “too crazy or too sane.”
The fact that the surveyor was seemingly haunted by a hallucination of the anthropologist—similar to the way that the psychologist was chased by what appeared to be the biologist—illustrates that they couldn’t trust what was real and what was an illusion. The biologist’s suggestion that the surveyor could have been ”too crazy or too sane” indicates that it is impossible to trust their minds and truly establish objective reality.
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The biologist takes stock of what she has: a few cans of food, drinking water, matches, her notebooks, and measuring tools. More supplies remain at the lighthouse. Out back, she also realizes that the surveyor dug a new grave, a mound of dirt to the side of it and a cross made from fallen branches. As the biologist cleans up the camp, she laughs, remembering the night her husband reappeared in her home. She remembers wiping spaghetti and chicken from a plate and wondering how this mundane act could coexist with what he experienced.
In once again comparing the incomprehensibility of her situation (and her husband’s situation) to mundane tasks like doing dishes, the biologist emphasizes how incomprehensible and awe-inspiring Area X’s mysteries have become. While the biologist came to Area X in order to understand her husband’s experience more fully, now that she’s immersed in it, she realizes that some mysteries are too great to solve.
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