Annihilation

by

Jeff VanderMeer

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The Tower/The Tunnel Symbol Analysis

The Tower/The Tunnel Symbol Icon

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

The Annihilation quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Tower/The Tunnel. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Farrar Straus & Giroux edition of Annihilation published in 2014.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Biologist’s Husband
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Surveyor
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Biologist’s Husband, The Surveyor
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Psychologist, The Surveyor, The Crawler
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Biologist’s Husband
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 97-98
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Crawler
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Crawler
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Biologist (speaker), The Crawler
Related Symbols: The Tower/The Tunnel
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Tower/The Tunnel Symbol Timeline in Annihilation

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tower/The Tunnel appears in Annihilation. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
On their fourth day in Area X, the group finds what the biologist calls a “tower.” It is about 60 feet in diameter and rises up from the ground only about... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The surveyor is shocked to see the tower, as it is not on any of their maps. The anthropologist isn’t quite sure how... (full context)
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The fourth night, the group discusses the tower, though the other three insist on calling it a tunnel. There is a vague protocol... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The discussion of the tower is the group’s first opportunity to test the limits of disagreement and compromise. The anthropologist... (full context)
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
...asks if anyone wants to leave yet—everyone shakes their heads. The psychologist agrees that the tunnel unsettles her and that they should investigate it. They then bid each other goodnight, as... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The morning after the group discovers the tower, they rise early. The surveyor gives them each a handgun and grabs the assault rifle... (full context)
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
At the tower, the group examines the structure. The psychologist comments on the tower’s different measurements: its height,... (full context)
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The biologist reiterates that she thinks of the structure as a tower, not a tunnel, and the others grudgingly accept her perspective. The surveyor descends first, struggling... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
...familiar with the lighthouse that they saw on their first day at base camp, the tower’s purpose is totally unfamiliar to them. The biologist feels uncomfortable in the silence, and she... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
...more—but the beast in the marshes now sounds like “an old friend compared to the tower.” (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The psychologist decides that the next day they should return to the tunnel wearing breathing masks and investigate it further. Then the psychologist says, “Consolidation of authority,” and... (full context)
Chapter 2
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
...is gone. The psychologist, who seems shaken, explains that what the anthropologist saw in the tunnel unnerved her, and she didn’t want to continue with the expedition, so she went back... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
...psychologist quickly changes the subject, saying they should stick with their plan to investigate the tower. The biologist doesn’t want to leave Area X before completing this investigation, so she agrees... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
At the tower, the surveyor and biologist plan to spend the full day inside while the psychologist stands... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The biologist notices on this descent that the tower is breathing, as though it is made of living tissue. The biologist sits down next... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The biologist and the surveyor continue to descend into the tower, and the biologist almost wishes that she weren’t aware of the tower’s true nature, wondering... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
...The surveyor, fighting some internal impulse, says that she doesn’t want to return to the tunnel. Instead, she wants to go back to the border and wait for extraction. The biologist... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The surveyor then examines the photographs they took in the tower, noting that they are all out of focus, as if the walls were emanating something... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
...was in the lighthouse the evening before, and she’s torn between the lighthouse and the tower. The surveyor has no interest in either, even though it might be the psychologist in... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
...mission. The biologist says, “There’s no reward in the risk of going back to the tower right now.” The surveyor is temporarily disoriented, but it becomes clear that she knows the... (full context)
Chapter 3
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The biologist thinks about what she found in the tower and the expedition overall. She knows an organism was writing living words along the tower,... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The biologist posits that the words are essential to the well-being of the Tower or the Crawler (the thing writing the words) or both. The Crawler and the Tower... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
...itself is dormant, and she can see for miles—the village, the base camp, and the Tower. There is a kind of phosphorescent brightness emanating from the Tower, and she is frustrated... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
...turning to mulch in the bottoms of stacks, embodying the scraps of writing in the Tower: “the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
...the focus is a way of coping with that horror. She also notices that the Tower fits into this theory as well, because it is never directly referenced. She is relieved... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The first sentence that the biologist found in the Tower appears in a surprising number of the journals, but the others find it just as... (full context)
Chapter 4
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Chapter 5
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Recovering from her wounds, the biologist is drawn once more to the Tower. But first, she tries to sort out the lies that she has been told about... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The 11th expedition discovered the Tower on the fifth or sixth day, and the biologist’s husband was very hesitant to venture... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
...members staying in the lighthouse while the linguist and the biologist went back to the Tower. The biologist’s husband and the surveyor continued past the lighthouse. The next few entries exhibit... (full context)
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist’s husband and the surveyor then returned to the Tower, but they only went down a few levels before coming back up, worried that the... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The surveyor and the biologist’s husband returned to the Tower at dusk, where they saw seven members of the 11th expedition heading into the Tower,... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
...starts to expand in her body once more. She feels compelled to return to the Tower, taking only one gun and a water canteen. She doesn’t take anything to record, recognizing... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist enters the Tower, descending past the first levels and observing that the glow on the wall has intensified.... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
Below the anthropologist, the Tower’s heartbeat becomes louder. The words on the wall become fresher, and there is also a... (full context)
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Turning the corner in the Tower and encountering the Crawler is a similar experience. The biologist cannot begin to understand what... (full context)
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The swimming pool, the Rocky Bay, the empty lot, the Tower, the lighthouse: these things are real and not real to the biologist. She remakes them... (full context)
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
After leaving the Tower, the biologist returns to base camp. She spends four days writing this account and plans... (full context)