In Annihilation, four women on a government expedition explore a mysterious wilderness preserve called Area X. The narrator—an unnamed biologist—is inexplicably drawn to the different landmarks and environments in Area X, but the more observations the biologist makes, the less she seems to understand. By book’s end, she recognizes how incomprehensible yet beautiful Area X is, contrasting it with the mundane nature of her life back home. This notion of a world both painfully beautiful and completely inexplicable connects to the philosophical concept of “the sublime”—something that is so incomprehensible that it inspires a mix of awe and fear. The biologist’s journey through Area X conjures these feelings of the sublime, suggesting that some mysteries are too great or beautiful to truly comprehend, and that sometimes the only way to experience mystery is to appreciate it without attempting to understand it.
As the biologist explores Area X, she feels a constant sense of curiosity, fear, and awe. For instance, when the expedition first arrives at Area X, the group hears a “low, powerful moaning at dusk” and cannot find its source. The biologist writes in her journal that “the effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either.” The beauty and fear that the moaning conjures are so strange that the biologist cannot understand or communicate what she’s experiencing in words. The biologist experiences this mysterious combination of horror and beauty a second time when the group discovers what she calls a “Tower”—a spiral staircase descending into the earth. The more the biologist thinks about the Tower, the more she is drawn to it; she writes, “I could not tell which part I craved and which I feared,” and she connects this feeling to “a sudden leap off a cliff into the unknown.” In this way, she seems to both fear the unknown and desire it for its beauty, which is an essential characteristic of the sublime. Then, after inhaling spores in the Tower, the biologist begins to perceive the Tower as alive and breathing, like the gullet of an enormous beast. As she descends into the Tower once more, she finds an “ongoing horror show of such beauty and biodiversity that [she] could not fully take it all in.” The more she learns about Area X, the less she is able to “take it all in”—or, the more unknowable it becomes. This contradiction indicates that the sublime is embedded in the very nature of Area X, and the biologist must be satisfied with the impossibility of finding answers to its mysteries.
The biologist contrasts the incomprehensible phenomena of Area X with the “mundane” occurrences that she associates with life outside of Area X. When entering the Tower the second time, for example, the biologist observes strange words written in vegetation and what look like tracks from the creature that is writing the words (which she names “the Crawler”). Looking at her own boot print beside the complex track patterns, she writes that it is “So mundane in comparison. So boring.” The implication is that her boot print—whose existence she can easily understand and explain—has less value than the mysteries of Area X. Then, after she has observed even more of Area X’s mysteries, she thinks about when her husband returned from his own expedition to Area X. That night, she “could distinctly recall wiping the spaghetti and chicken scraps from a plate and wondering with a kind of bewilderment how such a mundane act could coexist with the mystery of his reappearance.” This contrast again illustrates just how different and sublime Area X is in comparison with the dull, uncomplicated tasks of the world beyond it.
By book’s end, the biologist accepts that she cannot understand Area X’s mysteries—and she even seems invigorated by living alongside them. Returning to the Tower at the end of the book, the biologist finally observes the Crawler. And yet she still cannot fully see the creature; its existence overwhelms her perception, and she has an almost out-of-body experience. She thinks, “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.” In framing the pinnacle of her life as an encounter with something mysterious and incomprehensible, the biologist suggests that it is the nature of life itself to live alongside unsolvable mysteries and to appreciate them without understanding them. When she resurfaces after this encounter, she writes in her final journal entry, “Observing all of this has quelled the last ashes of the burning compulsion I had to know everything… anything…” This conclusion sums up the book’s complicated perspective on Area X: not only that there are some things too beautiful and terrible to understand, but also that life is not about solving mysteries—it’s about appreciating them.
The Sublime vs. The Mundane ThemeTracker
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Quotes in Annihilation
Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
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.
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.
This was really the only thing I discovered in him after his return: a deep and unending solitude, as if he had been granted a gift that he didn’t know what to do with. A gift that was poison to him and eventually killed him. But would it have killed me? That was the question that crept into my mind even as I stared into his eyes those last few times, willing myself to know his thoughts and failing.
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.
“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.
Cleaning up a little later, a fit of laughter came out of nowhere and made me double up in pain. I had suddenly remembered doing the dishes after dinner the night my husband had come back from across the border. I could distinctly recall wiping the spaghetti and chicken scraps from a plate and wondering with a kind of bewilderment how such a mundane act could coexist with the mystery of his reappearance.
There were thousands of “dead” spaces like the lot I had observed, thousands of transitional environments that no one saw, that had been rendered invisible because they were not “of use.” Anything could inhabit them for a time without anyone noticing. We had come to think of the border as this monolithic invisible wall, but if members of the eleventh expedition had been able to return without our noticing, couldn’t other things have already gotten through?
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.
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.
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?)
I plan to continue on into Area X, to go as far as I can before it is too late. I will follow my husband up the coast, up past the island, even. I don’t believe I’ll find him—I don’t need to find him—but I want to see what he saw. I want to feel him close, as if he is in the room. And, if I’m honest, I can’t shake the sense that he is still here, somewhere, even if utterly transformed—in the eye of a dolphin, in the touch of an uprising of moss, anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I’ll even find a boat abandoned on a deserted beach, if I’m lucky, and some sign of what happened next. I could be content with just that, even knowing what I know.