At the beginning of the novel, the members of the 12th expedition find a passageway into the earth, which the biologist thinks of as a tower, even though everyone else calls it a tunnel. This tunnel/tower embodies the impossibility of any human being making objective observations about their environment, since all perception is intertwined with subjective experience. This is clear even in the confusion over what to call this structure; while it’s objectively more like a tunnel, the biologist cannot stop seeing it as a tower. She doesn’t really understand why she perceives it this way—due to some personal idiosyncrasy, a structure that is a tunnel to everyone else is a tower to her.
The subjectivity of perception becomes even clearer when the biologist inhales spores inside the Tower, causing her to realize that the Tower is breathing, has a heartbeat, and seems to be the gullet of some enormous beast. When she suggests this to the surveyor, the surveyor becomes concerned, saying, “You saw something that wasn’t there,” while the biologist thinks, “You can’t see what is there.” It’s not clear whose perception—if either—reflects the truth. As the novel progresses (and as the biologist descends deeper into the tower), she encounters even trickier perceptual difficulties, including the Crawler. The Crawler is the mysterious creature who lives in the tunnel, and the biologist physically cannot perceive it objectively; she suspects that what she sees when she looks at it is actually just a reflection of her own expectations about what the creature should look like. Because of this, she can’t tell what the Crawler really is. By the end of the novel, the biologist seems to have given up to some degree on the notion that her perceptions can or should reflect reality objectively; she has to learn to live in a world where her experiences and beliefs may not be shared by anyone else.
The Tower/The Tunnel Quotes in Annihilation
At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back, I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.
As I came close, did it surprise me that I could understand the language the words were written in? Yes. Did it fill me with a kind of elation and dread intertwined? Yes. I tried to suppress the thousand new questions rising up inside of me. In as calm a voice as I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…”
Then the darkness took it.
Most important, however, I now could guess at one way in which the spores had affected me: They had made me immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions. They had made me into a kind of conspirator against her. Even if her purposes were benign, I felt a wave of anxiety whenever I thought of confessing that I was resistant to hypnosis—especially since it meant any underlying conditioning hidden in our training also was affecting me less and less.
I now hid not one but two secrets, and that meant I was steadily, irrevocably, becoming estranged from the expedition and its purpose.
I got my shit together because we were going to go forward and the surveyor couldn’t see what I saw, couldn’t experience what I was experiencing. And I couldn’t make her see it.
“Forget it,” I said. “I became disoriented for a second.”
“Look, we should go back up now. You’re panicking,” the surveyor said. We had all been told we might see things that weren’t there while in Area X. I know she was thinking that this had happened to me.
I held up the black box on my belt. “Nope—it’s not flashing. We’re good.” It was a joke, a feeble joke, but still.
“You saw something that wasn’t there.” She wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
You can’t see what is there, I thought.
I know this information might not be hard for anyone to find out, but I have hoped that in reading this account, you might find me a credible, objective witness. Not someone who volunteered for Area X because of some other event unconnected to the purpose of the expeditions. And, in a sense, this is still true, and my husband’s status as a member of an expedition is in many ways irrelevant to why I signed up.
How what we had seen below could coexist with the mundane was baffling. It was as if we had come up too fast from a deep-sea dive but it was the memories of the creatures we had seen that had given us the bends.
But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you, and you become lost in your thoughts in part from the panic of realizing the size of that imagined leviathan. I had to leave it there, compartmentalized, until I could write it all down, and seeing it on the page, begin to divine the true meaning. And now the lighthouse had finally gotten larger on the horizon. This presence weighed on me as I realized that the surveyor had been correct about at least one thing. Anyone within the lighthouse would see me coming for miles. Then, too, that other effect of the spores, the brightness in my chest, continued to sculpt me as I walked, and by the time I reached the deserted village that told me I was halfway to the lighthouse, I believed I could have run a marathon. I did not trust that feeling. I felt, in so many ways, that I was being lied to.
Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. I knew that the dolphins here sometimes ventured in from the sea, had adapted to the freshwater. But when the mind expects a certain range of possibilities, any explanation that falls outside of that expectation can surprise. Then something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen. I stood there, watched those twinned lines disappear up the canal, back toward the deserted village. I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage.
The enormity of this experience combined with the heartbeat and the crescendo of sound from its ceaseless writing to fill me up until I had no room left. This moment, which I might have been waiting for my entire life all unknowing—this moment of an encounter with the most beautiful, the most terrible thing I might ever experience—was beyond me. What inadequate recording equipment I had brought with me and what an inadequate name I had chosen for it—the Crawler. Time elongated, was nothing but fuel for the words this thing had created on the wall for who knew how many years for who knew what purpose.
A swimming pool. A rocky bay. An empty lot. A tower. A lighthouse. These things are real and not real. They exist and they do not exist. I remake them in my mind with every new thought, every remembered detail, and each time they are slightly different. Sometimes they are camouflage or disguises. Sometimes they are something more truthful.
Imagine, too, that while the Tower makes and remakes the world inside the border, it also slowly sends its emissaries across that border in ever greater numbers, so that in tangled gardens and fallow fields its envoys begin their work. How does it travel and how far? What strange matter mixes and mingles? In some future moment, perhaps the infiltration will reach even a certain remote sheet of coastal rock, quietly germinate in those tidal pools I know so well. Unless, of course, I am wrong that Area X is rousing itself from slumber, changing, becoming different than it was before.
The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much.