Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 science fiction drama Arrival gripped me by its poster campaign alone. All around my local cinema, featureless alien spacecraft were shown hovering over various locations around the globe behind the tagline, “Why are they here?” With this question, the posters captured the core of what we expect from films about first contact: what exactly do these aliens want? This question is on the audience’s minds from the very beginning, since it helps categorize a story into one of a few handy types (invasion thriller versus cerebral account of humanity’s development into a spacefaring race), and propels the plot itself. Would you be prepared to not have it answered?
Most first contact stories assume that aliens visit Earth out of greed, an instinct for survival, or a benign puppet-master-like interest in humanity’s wellbeing. But couldn’t these motivations be too anthropomorphic for a civilization that evolved under circumstances so different from our own? What if aliens had motivations we couldn’t understand, or no motives at all? The science fiction stories which leave Arrival’s poster campaign question unanswered and instead explore these more radical possibilities are therefore audacious but not unjustified.
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer, is one such work. The novel follows a team of scientists as they explore an uninhabited region known as Area X, where mysterious biological phenomena have been recently observed. Their government-mandated mission is to learn more about Area X, but the alien lifeform behind these manipulations remains enigmatic, refracting life into freakish Frankenstein creations to no discernible end. I only read Annihilation recently, and although I had high hopes for it as a paragon of weird fiction, I was ultimately disappointed by its approach to the inscrutable alien. Nothing that the book’s scientists observe is ever satisfactorily explained, nor does the book want it to be, intending instead to use the unknown as a horror device. While admirable, this aim doesn’t change the fact that readers have been trained to expect an answer to “Why are they here?” by nearly every other piece of first contact media they have ever encountered. When not given one, they will likely come away feeling cheated.
Does this expectation mean that stories about what the director of Annihilation’s film adaptation Alex Garland calls the “alien alien” can’t be done well? Of course not. Many successful stories about inscrutable aliens exist, but they ensure that the audience’s hunger for answers is otherwise addressed, either by sating it with a more meaningful discussion or by tempering expectations from the start. Where Annihilation fails is that it does neither.
The answer to an alien story’s fundamental question doesn’t have to be direct. It can keep the motivations mysterious by offering some salient thematic material for readers to chew on instead. For instance, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris has a similar premise to Annihilation: a group of scientists probe an ocean planet which they suspect is a sentient life form. What’s going on with this planet, which drives the scientists nearly to madness by sending them perfect copies of their dead loved ones? The book’s answer is that no one knows—but look at what the scientists’ failures tell us about the limits of science! The possibility that our human perception clouds our understanding of the world is what we’re really here to discuss. Another example is Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, where aliens visit Earth only briefly, leaving behind countless artifacts which irreversibly change society, and no one can figure out why. One character speculates that the damage done by the aliens is like the pollution carelessly left behind by human beings enjoying a picnic lunch, but this answer is too unsatisfying, and begs even more questions. All this unease, however, is funnelled into the book’s commentary on the cruel indifference of the universe and the politics of the Cold War. If Annihilation offered any such thematic discussions alongside its thrill-based plot, its “alien alien” would have been easier to accept. Unfortunately, the aphorisms scattered throughout the book aren’t nearly cohesive or substantial enough. With no deeper truth to meditate on, you’re left with only frustration at the original unanswered question.
Not every “alien alien” story has to talk about something beyond its plot, but if no answers are forthcoming, the audience shouldn’t be falsely led to believe that they will be given. For example, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” to which Annihilation has been compared, is a pure horror story about an alien force infecting a farm after a meteorite strike. But since it’s structured as an account of the invasion after the fact, narrated by someone as ignorant as the reader, and offers no clues about the alien’s motivations or methods, the story makes it very clear that these mysteries exist to terrify, not to be explained. Compare this to Annihilation, which tackles the problem of Area X with full confidence that it can be solved. The discovery of clues is treated as progress towards understanding the alien, even when they don’t reveal anything important. It’s only near the end that the biologist offers her theory that Area X’s power waxes and wanes on a cycle. This is information, sure, but it doesn’t address enough questions to justify being withheld from the reader for so long. In one scene, the biologist happens upon a cache of notebooks from previous expeditions, which herald long-awaited answers. However, all she learns is that the expeditions have been going on far longer than she’d been led to believe, a point which has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Unlike Lovecraft’s story, Annihilation doesn’t instill despair at the fact that its alien cannot be understood; instead, it leads readers around with signs that they will receive answers that never appear. Stories about inscrutable aliens aren’t inherently flawed by their reluctance to explain themselves. In fact, the concept of an alien so far removed from humanity that we can’t understand it is a powerful tool to evoke horror or give a sense of perspective on our place in the universe. However, if the quest to understand an alien’s motivations forms a story’s entire plot, and the questions raised are not answered even obliquely, then that story is using its “alien alien” to masquerade as a more profound book than it actually is. Sadly, this is what Annihilation does, which gives readers every right to grumble.