When the biologist first arrives in Area X, she prizes objectivity. As scientists, she and the other members of the team rely on facts: they collect samples and measurements, which are meant to help them classify Area X’s characteristics. At the same time, the biologist realizes that Area X is skewing their perceptions of the world around them, and the team suddenly disagrees about basic realities: is the passageway that leads to Area X a tunnel or a tower? Is the tunnel alive or not? That a group of scientists cannot agree on foundational facts makes the very project of interpreting reality “objectively” seem impossible. As the biologist observes, “nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective”—including herself.
When the expedition first arrives at Area X, the group’s fixation on facts and figures runs into trouble. Early on, the biologist writes of a “feeling I often had when out in the wilderness: that things were not quite what they seemed, and I had to fight against the sensation because it could overwhelm my scientific objectivity.” She wants to observe things factually, but she knows on some level that Area X is distorting how she observes the world around her. This tension between fact and perception becomes more apparent when the team first encounters a mysterious tunnel with a staircase spiraling down into the ground. Initially, the psychologist tries to emphasize that they need to have “faith in [their] measurements,” citing some facts about the height and diameter of the structure. But the biologist suspects that the psychologist is simply trying to “reassure herself” in the face of the tunnel’s strangeness—in fact, the data she collects can’t explain anything important about the tunnel at all. The team quickly realizes that they cannot even agree on basic facts about what the tunnel is, which seriously casts doubt on their ability to see their environment objectively. While the other three members think of the structure as a “tunnel,” the biologist emphasizes over and over that she can only see it as a “Tower.” In hindsight, the biologist marks this as “the first irrational thought [she] had once [they] had reached [their] destination.” The biologist recognizes that the environment itself is causing changes in her perception, preventing her from seeing anything objectively.
Over time, the biologist’s perception becomes even more obviously affected by her environment. On the group’s first descent into the Tower, the biologist inhales spores from the walls. When she and the surveyor return a day later, the tower suddenly seems to be living and breathing—something that the surveyor, who did not inhale spores, cannot perceive. The surveyor comments, “You saw something that wasn't there,” while the biologist thinks in response, “You can’t see what is there.” It’s not clear who—if either of them—is seeing “reality.” Moreover, the fact that the biologist doesn’t press her case suggests that she’s giving up on the idea of shared facts or objective reality altogether and accepting the fact that everyone will perceive their environment somewhat differently. The fact that the biologist’s perception is affected specifically by inhaling the spores makes a subtler point about perception, too: that one can never objectively perceive something of which they are a part. The spores are a physical indication that the biologist is slowly becoming part of her environment, and the more integrated into her environment she becomes, the more her perception changes. “Will I melt into this landscape […]?” she wonders. “Will I be aware that anything is wrong or out of place?” With this, the biologist acknowledges that becoming a part of Area X alters her perception of even basic things about it, like what is “wrong” or “out of place.” But since a person is always a part of their environment, their perception is always somewhat clouded by their subjective experiences and judgments.
This is also related to the biologist’s unreliability as a narrator. The biologist reveals partway through her account that she has not been “fully honest” with the reader, explaining that her husband was on the 11th expedition to Area X, and that his journey heavily influenced her own decision to go. She writes, “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.” Withholding this information, then, was an attempt to prevent the reader from thinking that she was biased—but the mere fact that she chooses to reveal information about herself sparingly suggests that she is constantly manipulating her narrative, and that it isn’t truly objective. She later writes, “It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know […]. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader's initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details.” This suggests that “objectivity” is a matter of style rather than truth. To be seen as “objective,” one has to appear to be a neutral and rational party—but one can never be neutral about their own perception, and the experience that the biologist is describing is highly irrational. So, in this light, it would be impossible to present it “objectively”—she can only relay her subjective perceptions.
In the book’s final pages, the biologist admits that when recalling details about the environments she has experienced, she “remake[s] them in [her] mind with every new thought, every remembered detail, and each time they are slightly different.” In this way, the book confirms that being immersed in something—whether it is an environment or simply memories of an environment—makes that experience inherently subjective.
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity ThemeTracker
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity 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.
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.
At first, I must have seemed mysterious to him, my guardedness, my need to be alone, even after he thought he’d gotten inside my defenses. Either I was a puzzle to be solved or he just thought that once he got to know me better, he could still break through to some other place, some core where another person lived inside of me. During one of our fights, he admitted as much—tried to make his “volunteering” for the expedition a sign of how much I had pushed him away, before taking it back later, ashamed. I told him point-blank, so there would be no mistake: This person he wanted to know better did not exist; I was who I seemed to be from the outside. That would never change.
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.
“How many of your memories do you think are implanted?” the psychologist asked. “How many of your memories of the world beyond the border are verifiable?”
“That won’t work on me,” I told her. “I am sure of the here and now, this moment, and the next. I am sure of my past.” That was ghost bird’s castle keep, and it was inviolate. It might have been punctured by the hypnosis during training, but it had not been breached. Of this I was certain, and would continue to be certain, because I had no choice.
“I’ll give you this scrap: The border is advancing. For now, slowly, a little bit more every year. In ways you wouldn’t expect. But maybe soon it’ll eat a mile or two at a time.”
The thought of that silenced me for a long moment. When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. The black boxes might do nothing but in my mind they were all blinking red.
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.
Observing all of this has quelled the last ashes of the burning compulsion I had to know everything… anything… and in its place remains the knowledge that the brightness is not done with me. It is just beginning, and the thought of continually doing harm to myself to remain human seems somehow pathetic. I will not be here when the thirteenth expedition reaches base camp. (Have they seen me yet, or are they about to? Will I melt into this landscape, or look up from a stand of reeds or the waters of the canal to see some other explorer staring down in disbelief? Will I be aware that anything is wrong or out of place?)