Character Degree Zero: Space and Posthuman Subject

Elana Gomel |

Posthuman subjects in SF are often marked by extreme corporeal modifications, hence the genre’s narrative zoo of cyborgs, mutants, and human-alien hybrids. Far rarer but also more interesting is a posthuman subject whose difference is located in its/his/her psyche. Such subjects challenge humanism more profoundly and unsettlingly than does the cyborg.

The humanist subject is defined by agency, free will, psychological depth, emotional affect, and desire for social integration. SF calls each of these qualities into question. The genre has created subjects who have no agency or self-consciousness (Peter Watts’ Blindsight, 2006), no possibility of free choice (Harey in Lem’s Solaris, 1961), no emotional or sexual affect (Greg Egan’s Distress, 1995), and no way of integrating into society (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968).

But how are such subjects represented? What are the implications of their existence for narrative theory? Narratology has long lagged behind literary practice, relying upon the canon of psychological realism in its conceptualization of plot, voice, and character. With regard to characterization narrative theory is still bound by a century-old distinction between ‘flat’ and ’round’ characters, the latter being valorized as psychologically complex and humanly engaging (Forster 1927).

But if a round character is an equivalent of the humanist subject, does it mean that a flat character is posthuman? The question seems ridiculous; are not flat, formulaic characters merely a hallmark of the commercial degradation of genre fiction?

I would argue, however, that there is indeed a category of posthumanist subjects whose most striking feature is their lack of inner space. These are the opposite of the realistic character whose complex psychological life is embedded in – indeed depends upon – the inert Newtonian space. The flat posthuman characters I am interested in, on the other hand, have no interiority of their own but inhabit a space that is topologically complex, active, and psychologically charged, verging on autonomous agency.

The process that generates such subjects might be called character eversion (in the dictionary meaning of eversion as the state of being turned inside out). As opposed to the pathetic fallacy, in which the landscape echoes the character’s inner state, in the eversion of subjectivity the character’s inner state becomes an echo of the landscape. Space and subject exchange places.

The literary entrenchment of humanism was inextricably linked to the Newtonian paradigm of space and time, as Ian Watt showed in his classic study The Rise of the Novel (Watt 24). I discussed the connection between Newtonian space and humanist subject in my recent book (Gomel 2014). Here I want to go beyond the book’s focus on the structure of the fictional world and to consider the issue of characterization. What are the implications of a flat character in a ’round’ world? There are many SF texts that deploy this strategy. I will discuss two recent examples: Kim Stanley Robinson’s novella A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) and Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014). The latter is incomplete as the last book has not come out yet.

Robinson’s novella follows the amnesiac protagonist who wakes up in the otherworldly ocean alongside a woman known only as ‘the swimmer’. Together they hike the only land on this ocean world – the endless girding spine, a peninsula without the mainland. The identity of the protagonist (who calls himself Thel) is unknown. He never recovers his memory nor are we told whether his exile on the spine is an accident, a punishment, or perhaps a reward. Lost in a flow of strange encounters and striking impressions, Thel becomes merely a roving eye, a moving point of view through which the reader is experiencing the landscape.

The spine is vividly evoked in poetic and yet precise descriptions. It is topologically impossible, “a landscape in reverse”, the “earth river” (Robinson 24). It is also double, harboring its own reflection, which Thel periodically accesses by diving through a magic mirror. There is no explanation for any of the events surrounding the mirror, or for the peculiar creatures inhabiting the spine – fractal-faced women, tree people, humanoid mollusks – who behave toward Thel and the swimmer with the capriciousness of a fever dream, intermittently helping and harming them. The novella deliberately undermines our expectations of causality, narrative coherence, or explanatory closure. The spine becomes the plot: Thel and the swimmer are literally driven on by the topography of the land. They have no desires and no goals independent of the place that contains them. The narrow strip of rock and sand, with its mesmerizing beauty and elusive mystery, is the true protagonist of the novella, while Thel’s transparent consciousness is the narrative space it inhabits.

The inversion of space and character is emphasized by the very beginning of the novella, in which the drowning man is brought into consciousness by “a shattered image of a crescent moon”, at which “a whole cosmology bloomed in him” (Robinson 2). Thel is given reality by his impossible world, cosmology filling the void of his hollowed self.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, consisting, so far of two books, Annihilation and Authority, (the third book Acceptance is scheduled to be published in September 2014), has a plot similar to the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972). A mysterious alien incursion has created a topologically distorted space – Area X – located somewhere in the south of the US. The area is only accessible through a single portal but those who venture inside either do not come back, or come back psychologically and physically changed, mutated in unpredictable and often horrifying ways. The organization known as the Southern Reach Authority sends successive expeditions to Area X but the information they collect does not elucidate either the nature of the incursion or the ways of combatting it. Instead the Authority becomes a bureaucratic labyrinth, infected by the same strangeness as the area itself.

Annihilation is narrated in the first person by a member of one of the expeditions, a nameless female biologist. Authority is exclusively focalized through a male agent named John who interrogates the biologist (or rather, her copy) when she comes out of Area X and eventually follows her back there.

The most striking feature of the biologist’s narrative voice is its flatness. Even when referring to her own emotional reactions, she sounds remote, an observer rather than a participant. Referring to her life before she was recruited to the expedition, she says “my existence back in the world had become at least as empty as Area X. With nothing left to anchor me, I needed to be here” (Annihilation). This need is what drives her on, even as the other expedition members perish or disappear. She is following in the footsteps of her husband who had been in another expedition and came back as an empty shell filled with the strangeness of Area X. Her quest is not to find what happened to him but rather to become like him: a human-shaped alien site. As she says at the beginning of her quest, “Desolation tries to colonize you”. The very notion of colonization is inverted: instead of space being taken over by humans, space takes them over.

'The Invisible Man' (2008) by Regino Gonzales

‘The Invisible Man’ (2008) by Regino Gonzales

Like Robinson’s novella, Vandermeer’s books are filled with elaborate descriptions of a magical terrain, which time is subsumed into space, action into observation. Area X is pristine wilderness, cleansed of the signs of human habitation. And yet this pastoral is infested by a monstrous Crawler, composed of human brain cells, who ‘writes’ incomprehensible lines taken from the ravings of a religious lunatic on the walls of its lair in living moss. Language, along with subjectivity, is absorbed into the landscape. As the biologist puts it: “Slowly the history of exploring Area X could be said to be turning into Area X” (Annihilation). This process of absorption continues in Authority, where Area X literally takes over the human institution meant to study and contain it.

Character eversion in SF can be conceptualized using Roland Barthes’s notion of writing degree zero. Defined in his 1967 book of the same title, writing degree zero is a flat, neutral, transparent style whose aim is to expunge the writer’s subjectivity, to be “delivered of history”, and to “find again the freshness of a pristine state of language” (Barthes 74). The protagonists/narrators in Robinson’s and Vandermeer’s books are ‘characters degree zero’ whose lack of agency and affect plunges them into an unmediated unity with the topologically impossible space. The texts enact the ‘deliverance from history’ as a wholly spatial chronotope, devoid of both past and future, in which time becomes a function of geography. Their rich descriptions reach for a ‘pristine state of language’, striving for the effect of visual immediacy rather than verbal coherence.

In Barthes’s view, ‘writing degree zero’ was a political act, meant to cleanse discourse of the accumulated traces of ideological falsehood. Similarly, character degree zero is a political figure. In its radical break with the Newtonian architecture of humanism, it inscribes an attempt to go beyond the anthropocentrism of traditional narrative discourse. This discourse is no longer adequate either narratively or politically. The ‘everted’ characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures: surely an important subject in the age of Anthropocene.


Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. By Annette Lavers and Colon Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984 (1953). Print.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine Books, 1982 (1968). Print.

Egan, Greg. Distress. New York: HarperPrism, 1997 (1995). Print.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. London: E. Arnold, 1953 (1927). Print.

Gomel, Elana. Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Trans. Joanna and Steve Cox Kilmartin. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc, 1970 (1961). Print.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. A Short, Sharp Shock. New York: Bantam Books, 1996 (1990). Print.

Strugatsky, Arkady, and Boris Strugatsky. Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic). Moscow: Avrora, 1972. Print.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy). New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014, 2014. Electronic.
—. Authority (Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy). New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014. Electronic.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006. Print.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001 (1957). Print.


Elana Gomel is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at Tel-Aviv University. She is the author of six books and numerous articles on subjects such as postmodernism, narrative theory, science fiction, Dickens, and Victorian culture. Her latest books are Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature (Routledge 2014) and Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014).

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