For those who’ve asked me on Twitter about the possibility of new Area X/Southern Reach fiction, I can report that I’m (slowly) working on a novella entitled “The Bird Watchers.” The novella is set during the last week before the event that created Area X and the viewpoint character is Old Jim. Some readers will remember Old Jim as “ol’ piano fingers” in one of the more chilling scenes in Acceptance. Well, it turns out Old Jim was involved in the Seance & Science Brigade’s mission, among other nefarious things.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Control’s grandpa Jack makes an appearance. You might also catch sight of some characters from the lighthouse keeper’s thread in Acceptance. Structurally, the story is broken into sections that delve into the present and the past, each with Old Jim in the title. Like, for example “Old Jim and the Lighthouse” and “Old Jim and the Thing From Below”.
This isn’t an attempt to “wrap things up,” and I really didn’t expect to even work on any additional Southern Reach fiction. But the idea came to me while thinking a bit more about the S&S Brigade–an organization that has really stuck in my brain. It’s stuck there not just in the context of Central parasitically infiltrating and using the Brigade, but also in thinking about how their mission might extend to other places than the Forgotten Coast.
I had the idea for the S&SB when I visited the Coral Castle near Miami several years ago. On the day I visited, I stumbled upon two separate groups of researchers taking readings. One was comprised of psychics and the other of physicists. As you might imagine, I couldn’t let go of that juxtaposition and knew it would eventually come out in my fiction.
I’m letting “The Bird Watchers” coalesce slowly and organically, so I have no idea when I’ll have a final draft, but I’m enjoying revising the S&SB, exploring Old Jim’s involvement with various elements along the Forgotten Coast, and also in returning to a fictionalized history of that area. It feels very natural.
Here’s the start of the section entitled “Old Jim and the Biologists.” It’s atypical of the style of the novella as a whole, but the only part I feel comfortable unveiling for now…
Once there had been biologists here, in numbers so great that the forgotten coast shook with the tremors of their vehicles. These men and women bestrode the terrain like conquerors, sent by government money in the form, it was rumored, of gold bars well-hidden that could not devalue or decay like the money kept in banks.
In the summer of that first year they established their headquarters in the ruins of the ghost town, a bivouac of scientists unprecedented for that place even when it had been alive. As they spread out across their migratory range, the biologists as observed by the locals began to carry out a series of arcane rituals. They shoved pieces of swamp grasses and bits of bark into vials. They put up tents out in “the field” as they called it, even when it was just black swamp. They used binoculars, scopes, and microscopes. They took readings with innumerable peculiar instruments. At times, they stopped in their labors to swear about the heat and humidity, which did not endear them.
The biologists tagged many living things—at least one of every creature that moved and breathed across the pine forests and the cypress swamp, the salt marshes and the beach. They took fine nylon nets and set up capture zones for songbirds, the worst among them running clod-stepped to the rescue of what they had themselves endangered. Fragile wings and fragile beaks, heads to the side; small eyes looking up at giants that held their bodies in half-closed fists. They tagged so many things, had brought so many tranq darts, that the blue caps removed from the tips still showed up years later in the marshes, along the river bank or crushed into the gravel of the dirt roads.
In their heyday, at the zenith of their powers, some said their boot prints outnumbered the tracks of deer and raccoons and otters on the salt flats.
But over time, the effort that had quickened slowed, the impulse behind it dulled, and the biologists began to die out. Their mobile tents that had once dotted the camping ground near the lighthouse began to disappear. The sounds of their idle conversations before expeditions in the early morning became muted and infrequent. That last spring there might have been a hundred of them and by the fall only four or five. Their diminishment hastened by a lack of grant renewal and a moving on of government attention, that great eye roving toward other lands and foreign wars.
Research and development went to other projects, men who would soon walk upon the moon, while down below soon no one observed the marshes except the few people who had always lived on the forgotten coast. In the winter, the last biologist assigned to an area of remote swamp was recalled, never to return. The great initiative had receded into history, the ghost town left to the ghosts again.
At least, that was the story told down at the village bar, where Old Jim often sat and paid in cash for beer and sandwiches tossed to him out of coolers. Sometimes they told it for the strangeness, sometimes more serious. Every time it achieved an added velocity and detail that might not have been there before.