Animate Matters — Sci-Fi, Empedocles, and GMOs

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Rose bushes that grow in human form. Manta rays designed to skirt your office ceiling. I don’t read much sci-fi, so I am probably an easy audience for Jeff Vandermeer’s “New Weird” work, happily fascinated by ideas that I imagine are widespread in genre fiction. I read his 2010 short story collection The Third Bear recently, shortly after seeing the film Annihilation, based on his book of the same name, and in both I noticed the uncanny possibilities of what I might call “animate matter.” In just this small cross-section, I was struck by how genetic boundaries break down, living material is manipulated, and control — or the loss of it — can define the human relationship to “nature.”

Improbable combinations of species have a history in many cultures as mythical hybrids — sometimes as gods, but just as often as monsters. Long past believing in griffins, the public still reacts strongly to “unnatural” combinations; the current GMO contention is a prime example. In this debate, the public holds a particularly strong aversion to alterations that cross the species boundary. A Scientific American article suggests that “People are typically more opposed to GM applications that involve the transfer of DNA between two different species (‘transgenic’) than within the same species (‘cisgenic’).” Part of what might inform this reaction is the sense that animals are designed for some purpose, and that it’s unnatural to disrupt that unified whole. The article continues:

Intuitions about purposes and intentions […] render us vulnerable to the idea that purely natural phenomena exist or happen for a purpose that is intended by some agent. These assumptions are part and parcel of religious beliefs, but in secular environments they lead people to regard nature as a beneficial process or entity that secures our wellbeing and that humans shouldn’t meddle with. In the context of opposition to GMOs, genetic modification is deemed “unnatural” and biotechnologists are accused of “playing God.”

Teleologic beliefs about nature date at least back the ancient Greeks, when some philosophers proposed natural theories that pointed to purposeful design. Plato suggested that the intestines are designed to slow eating and therefore inspire thinking (that is, philosophy). Aristotle states in The Parts of Animals, “Every part of the body is for some action: so what the body as a composite whole is for is a multifaceted action.” And in evolutionary theory, traits are still framed as being “for” survival, which can be confused with intentionality. Many are suspicious of meddling with a species’ “design,” or of attempting to control life itself, not least because of the narratives that reinforce this warning — just think of Jurassic Park.

Within the “Shimmer” in Annihilation, DNA of different species combines openly and improbably, a bit like freestyling, remixing, real-time evolution. We see the threat of porous boundaries, and witness how the very essence of living things is permeable. The disturbing logic of this unfolds beautifully. Cells begin to shift, change. Vine tendrils sprout from a woman’s arm. A bear’s roar mimics a woman’s dying scream. Bodies waver, and improbable combinations flourish. This is not a “playing God” scenario, as the humans never had control, though it does echo situations where scientists think they have total power and later turn out to be quite helpless. Instead, the ever-expanding “Shimmer” in Annihilation is a zone with particular rules that humans must try to discover. Outside of this movie, the original zone, of course, is Earth itself, in which we find ourselves, and have for centuries sought to understand the rules for what surrounds us.

Some of the earliest (and decidedly non-empirical) attempts to understand our reality are the most fascinating, and actually might make decent sci-fi. For instance, the Ancient Greeks also had their own notions of combination. Empedocles, (495–435 BCE), thought the universe was composed of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Combined through the alternating forces of Love and Strife, these materials form everything, struggling against each other in phases of creation and recreation. Love is the generative phase, in which hybrids come into being. It’s worth reading a translation of the original fragments that describe this process:

57) On it (the earth) many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders. Eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads.

58) Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union.

59) But, as divinity was mingled still further with divinity, these things joined together as each might chance, and many other things besides them continually arose.

60) Shambling creatures with countless hands.

61) Many creatures with faces and breasts looking in different directions were born; some, offspring of oxen with faces of men, while others, again, arose as offspring of men with the heads of oxen, and creatures in whom the nature of women and men was mingled, furnished with sterile parts.

Nothing stays as it is — forms that are not successful die out, and those that are successful persist, as when an ox-head finally finds its ox-body. This is not, of course, precisely like Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it does describe a process in part determined by the success of form. This weird theorizing resembles a deliberate attempt to play with the known rules of the world, and though I don’t know if Vandermeer is familiar with Empedocles, it seems that old ideas have trickled down in one way or another into the present.

In The Third Bear, two stories in particular explore the messed-up possibilities of playing with animate matter. In “The Predecessor,” two figures enter a kind of house, a mix between a mad scientist’s lab and an animal hoarder’s living room. This story doesn’t spare the gruesome effects, as the narrator, and the reader, are gradually exposed to the monstrous hybrids the “man” has created. There are mummified remains that look, “in the way their paws had crossed, as if they been attempting to cross the divide between animal and human.” There are creatures in cages, “squirming flesh mottled with fur, an eye or two glancing out from the mess.” As the figures get closer to the creator’s lair, the horror grows. There is a “giant human body composed of many other bodies,” filled with animals “too various to describe,” “torn apart and remade to create still stranger creatures.” There is a kind of chaotic moral for the story: “Flesh is only flesh, skin only skin, muscle only muscle. It can all change and be changed.” The rule is that there are no rules. Nature, perhaps, has no “purpose” in the sense of a creator. But these particular living things do have a creator, and therefore someone who could answer for the suffering. The narrator wants to know: “What purpose could this serve to him?”

At least in this story such hybrids are still taboo. Shared disgust can be comforting. But in the story “The Situation,” the idea of fleshy animation, of combination — human, animal, technology, material — is not held apart as some incorrect order, which the narrator gradually discovers. Rather, the narrator finds himself already within a reality where the monstrous is a normalized state of affairs, and it’s the reader who has to catch on to the rules. As the story unfolds we learn that the narrator somehow constructs living beetles to be “used” on children. The animals created in this workplace are designed, forms manipulated at will, and the creatures become technology — slugs on the spine cause forgetfulness, for instance, while leeches suck bad thoughts out of your head.

Meanwhile, there seem to be few regular animals left: ”Outside, in the city, it was almost impossible to find a bird.” The employees begin to develop a fish prototype, a living creature but with features that constantly change: “We worked from the flesh-and-blood scale model I had made in my office, which was linked to a chart on the meeting room wall that showed the fish-as-blueprint, almost like the schematic of a ship’s hull.” Almost as horrific as losing control over our experiments might be this vision of bureaucratic control, monster-generation by committee, wherein creatures no longer have their own natural purposes, but are merely animated flesh yoked to our own banal and insidious ends. The project goes badly, and the narrator finally “drove a knife into the quivering slab of recording material.”

Readers of this story might recognize this modern sense of dominion over life. But Annihilation’s vision of our helplessness is the more enduring vision. The last of Empedocles’ fragments is the simple and stunning phrase, “Earth that envelops the man.” Perhaps here Empedocles touched upon a simple and enduring truth. For all the ways the Earth and its life are at our mercy, only in stories can we escape the condition of being enveloped by the world, a world that will always evade our control.


Image: W.88, fol. 115v, Book of Hours. Ca. 1300-10. The Walters Art Museum, Digitized Walters Manuscripts, Baltimore, MD.

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