photo: Vincent Kocher

Perhaps, I’ve just been looking for a place to die.

Norco, The Southern Reach Trilogy, & Citizen Sleeper

Matthew Pon
11 min readAug 29, 2023


Thematic spoiler warnings for the above, though I’ll try not to get too into detail.

Across the horizon, shimmers of sunlight illuminated Snæfellsjökull’s far off glacial cliffs. A dying dusk-light left just enough visibility to make out the fields of violet flowers stretching from the coast to infinity. Here, seemingly at the ends of the Earth, I ached to find some semblance of peace, of solitude, of oblivion.

Elsewhere, but not far, I found myself in a valley of cooling magma. On the hike up to Fagradalsfjall’s ongoing eruption, ugly misshapen shards crackled like shattering glass — liquid fire spilled forth from a lonely mountain, the heat overwhelming, overbearing, suffocating, radiating from seemingly everywhere.

I knew then: windswept, eroded away, in witness to that majesty and horror of destruction; that desolation wasn’t truly the answer I was searching for.

photo: Vincent Kocher

There is something antagonistic about returning home to the American suburbs: the vast swaths of copy-pasted homes; of meticulously manicured lawns; of fences and stone demarcating delineated spaces; of dogs barking in furious animosity when strayed too near. Everyone here is a little king or queen of their empty fiefdom, solitary in their halls and wondering why: when they’ve walled everyone off, an empty loneliness is all that seeps in with the draft.

There is a certain melancholy of coming back to a place you thought you left behind. In connections frayed and left behind in disrepair. In things left unfinished and unsaid and undone. In time spent in repeat, comforting in its familiarity, a reminder or refrain of things lost and then rediscovered.

It was something I wasn’t prepared to face.


I’ve never been to New Orleans, to Norco in its suburbs, or even to Louisiana.

I have no meaningful experience living in the American South except for shimmers of temporary memory in that lingering haze: the swelter and sweat suffocating and ever present.

But every year; as recurrent as the tides, in the waning warmth of a summer drawn out too long; an ever worsening hurricane season returns as a persistent reminder from afar:

we are specks of dust to the whims of entropy, to the inscrutability of nature,

and we are far from usurpers to its sovereignty.

Geography of RobotsNorco the game, is Norco — the place. A tragedy of small town America in slow motion: a place once commercialized and now forgotten; a slow disaster that borders on absurdity if only it wasn’t so achingly familiar to those of us that have lived here or witnessed the onset of its ruin — a remnant of American expansion and empire at home, in decline. And yet, even as a fictionalized near-future version of the real-life Norco, Louisiana, the game also displays a kind of insular warmth that reminds us of the place of our youth: with all the familiar faces and places we grew into and quickly out of.

These echoes of “real life” familiarity are everywhere: in the local extraction industry’s deregulation and exploitation of the surrounding landscape; in the increasing climate volatility that hangs overhead and the failed interventionalist measures to combat it; in the inevitable televised catastrophes that shock us with suffering; in the slow invisible degradation of quality of life that saps and withers us away.

Norco’s Shield Corporation serves as a Shell Oil analogue, but the cues and scars left in its wake are the same. A skyline of refineries, smokestacks, and blighted space left over when industry takes priority over all else. A company town built up as a cog in the machine, otherwise unremarkable save for the people that call it home — surviving in its shadow and in the few habitable spaces left over.


There is an odd familiarity in rediscovering your own backyard — reconnecting Kay with these people she used to know. With her father long gone, the more recent passing of her mother, and her brother’s disappearance, Kay retreads Norco with her mother’s android companion— Million, and later, Detective LeBlanc, in tow. Across town they reveal a window into the lives of the people that truly define Norco the place: people that knew her parents; residents that remember Norco as it was; nostalgics that can recall different times and concoct glimmerings of warmer memories; the remnants that live in the Norco of here and now, living each day in the afterglow of passing cars over the freeway — in the shimmers of refinery-light across the bayou.

There is an anthropological, a geographical, a historical coloring to Norco’s representation of Norco, Louisiana that reflects not only the deep personal history of Geography of Robots, but a shared personal history of the normal everyday real people that the game takes inspiration from — moments abound where a human face surfaces from the shimmering pixels and words on screen. In the stories here, we’re reminded: we all know someone who never left the place of our youth —

sometimes its us.


Because everyone here is inextricably anchored to this place.

Anchored here amidst disaster fueled by corporations too large to topple.

Anchored here in the presence of nerds and cultists, influencers and hipsters and punks, kids rebelling against their parents and elders with roots burrowed too deep, normal people scrounging to survive and people so detached from the reality of living that they’re only barely hanging on.

Anchored here in this place that is home, filled with a familiarity and levity and warmth that resides in the people and relationships that go on persisting here despite the crushing realities overhead.

And yet even as someone who has left and returned, Kay/you are anchored here too.

While this city is sinking, leaving memories and the past receding into the murk, Norco is filled with threads left undone, being confronted today with the regrets of places and people that we left behind yesterday, forgotten. Now we’re picking at the scabs years later; those threads now fully frayed and split, some ends burnt off, some now fastened inextricably to causes and movements greater than ourselves.

We scour Norco to grab hold of the last remnants of a family we left behind, knowing full well the possibility that we might not be able to salvage anything from the effort.

But the possibility of being able to find her brother: to share the burden of that uncertainty of the future, the brunt of whatever might come, is preferable to the alternative alone.

Kay never returned to Norco to stay, but it doesn’t mean that coming back was meaningless.


And yet, even elsewhere… these problems resound.

Months later, in the swelter of the Mediterranean Coast that presaged the fires that would rage throughout that summer in Southern France, I wandered alone.

How to describe the experience of being here: this collation of transitory fragments of experience and place; feeling as much at home as furthest from it?

Photo by Angelo Jesus on Unsplash

Glimmerings of euphoria, of loneliness, of sobering clarity; refracted off Mediterranean hues; off the meandering Rhône and Saône; off my own reflection in glass caught in sideways glances as my own otherness crystalized.

The terroir of my experience in this place.

photo: mine

But traveling alone, gave me some sense — however still undefined, of what I ached for. What we look for in a home is far from universal: even when thrust into seemingly alien territory, it has to come from within, mirrored outwards.

Each of Jeff Vandermeer’s central characters in The Southern Reach trilogy (the first book also adapted in 2018’s Annihilation) found home along Florida’s panhandle coast in two forms: Area X as a physical manifestation of place, and the “brightness” as internal literal and metaphorical transformation — an otherworldly and unexplainable desire to be part and parcel of Area X.

Area X spread from a single point within our world, enveloping Florida’s Forgotten Coast in an otherworldly border. Within: accelerated decay of all traces of human existence and rapid rewilding and mutation; an environment and ecosystem that seems to consciously mimic ours; an unknowable watcher, an incomprehensible sense of being observed; a vacuum of control or understanding; an allegory for environmental and cosmic disaster wrought upon ourselves.

And Area X is expanding.

Those who venture within eventually are exposed to “the brightness”: an infection, both literal and metaphorical, that transforms from within; a desire to stay, to change, to become one with, Area X. We realize, perhaps too late — to our horror, that in the ways we feel we are being watched, we are. In some ways “the brightness” is reincarnation and evolution made literal and immediate: if the very cells of your body transformed you from within; mottled skin replaced with scales, arms to fins, but the same presence of mind, albeit perhaps more wild, more instinctual. In other ways, perhaps it’s what we wanted all along, a way to change and become truly, inseparably, part of a place. In a way humans in nature have always failed to be.

It’s both of these that trigger an unsettling realization: in the same way that travel and new experiences often drastically alter our perception of the world henceforth; just our presence within Area X is transformational — from within and without.

Each of these characters, throughout this trilogy, get an inkling; a glimpse of a sense; a longing and a yearning; a discovery or a rediscovery; of what home could be. And they find it: in all its configurations; in all its forms and shapes of being; in all its endings and new beginnings.

Paramount Pictures — Annihilation

Because what Area X was for these characters was a terminus or irrevocable change. These things can’t be established in motion, in transit — temporarily or halfheartedly.

Photo by Warren Sammut on Unsplash

I wondered if Portugal: famous or perhaps infamous for attracting expats from all over; could give me a taste of found home.

And yet, wandering the streets of Porto and Lisbon, I felt ever the vagrant, looking for something I realized I would never find in this transitory state.

It nestled there, an ache ever present, echoing with each night spent in an unfamiliar bed, in familiar songs in unexpected places and that ever present feeling of longing. It hardened, in every unfamiliar phrase, in each turn of the tongue unprepared and out of reach.

Every taste of wine; of port; of ginjinha; of water; despite all the hospitality and friendliness in the world; turned sour in my mouth.

That missing sense of belonging, that missing time that it takes to truly feel like a part of a place, tainted my taste buds more than anything else. These things don’t settle on a predefined timeline, it’s as much about familiarity with space as it is with the people that fill it. And I had neither of these things in any kind of sufficiency.

photo: Bryan Pon

Because in some ways, this dichotomy of adventuring abroad and resuming the rote familiarity of my hometown left me woefully out of practice in one way that now felt painfully clear: I had forgotten what it was like to actually build and make a life in a place.

Jump Over the Age’s Citizen Sleeper is primarily about just that. In discovering a new home through the people around us — in understanding, intertwined in their needs and wants and dreams, a little bit more about what those things are for yourself.

The Eye is not necessarily a final destination for all. For some, this remote space station is simply a place in-transit; a place of necessity; or for you, a place of refuge. And yet, company, danger, precarity, hunger, shelter; these are omnipresent and universal, the limits of self-sufficiency. And here, on The Eye, you’re in need in all of these degrees:

  • As a sleeper with a synthetic body, you suffer from chronic degradation and need regular medication normally distributed by Essen Arp, the interstellar corporation that owns the body you’ve run away with.
  • Sustaining yourself via sleep and food, the physical conditions and capabilities of your body are as much a currency as the credits in your wallet.
  • The act of seeking refuge/asylum; of being pursued by Essen Arp; the exclusion and prejudice that comes with being a synthetic human; the declining situation aboard The Eye, breeds precarity.

And so you roll the dice.


You take a chance: on taking a shift at a rowdy bar; on lending a hand to a friend in need or in trouble; on trusting someone who hasn’t necessarily earned it yet; on earning money and favors and food and small comforts in whichever ways you can. Doing what you can with each day, with the hand you’ve been dealt.

And little by little, inexplicably and invisible and out of view, a familiarity takes hold. Roots nestle their way between the cracks in your synthetic skin, patching the holes and wounds left gaping open for far too long. Suddenly you’ve found yourself woven into the fabric of this place…


Until, unpredictably, even in the face of adversity; in the face of cataclysmic end and impending war and hardship; in the knowledge that life as it was before will inevitably conclude; you come to the realization that you can run away for no longer. Even in these twilight years, in the waning decline, in the condemned sentencing of this place — the people here, your history and place in it; are too much to leave behind.

In the end, despite all the threads pulling me away towards escape: towards alternative lives or different outcomes; I could no longer extricate myself from this place that had embedded itself into my heart. Home is a place you disappear into; no longer distinguishable from it; a piece of its ecosystem; a grumpy old man that won’t leave; a piece of the scenery; until it, and you — one and the same, fade to dust.

Years later, like waking from a distant dream, I don’t feel any more resolved than when I first returned to the place of my childhood. These uncertainties linger, as they always have, but I know they won’t be quelled here as long as I stay.

We’re thankful for our cradle’s graces,
but we’re not coming back.

So I’ve already departed, settled not far, but far enough away — still in search of a place to call home, but perhaps, really just looking for a place to die — someday. Hopefully somewhere along the way, I’m putting in the time and taking a couple of chances. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of me in passing, idling just out of frame, a blur in the background — until I’m gone.

Paramount Pictures — Annihilation

Thanks for reading!
Unsurprisingly, this one somehow took longer than the last one…?

I’m not really sure where the time has gone.

Norco by Geography of Robots
The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) by Jeff Vandermeer
Citizen Sleeper by Jump Over the Age