Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff VanderMeer
Science Fiction| Fantasy | 195 Pages | Published by Fourth Estate in 2014
Imagine, if you will, that you are lost within an alien landscape. You do not know whether you have left this earth or crossed through an alternative dimension, or whether you yet remain in a strange forgotten corner of the world. The only thing which connects you to the rest of humanity is a journal. A journal of a woman whose name you do not know, whose life is slowly unfolding as you turn the cracked and brittle pages, and whose fate will yet remain a mystery at its close.
Annihilation is a strange, disquieting and eerily beautiful novel which takes the reader on an expedition into Area X; where those who enter leave changed, if they leave at all. This is a tale of discovery and quiet observation, a preternatural mystery which should be slowly savoured until you are nothing but lost in the wilds of VanderMeer’s imagination.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
Annihilation follows the expedition of an unnamed protagonist, the biologist, as she journeys into Area X, a mysterious and extensive partition of land under an apparent imposed quarantine. Previous expeditions have entered but all have returned altered, if they returned at all.
Together with a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, the twelfth expedition makes its way into this strange and mystifying land only to find that danger is as likely to come from within as without; no one remains the same in Area X. With towers that spiral into the earth, strange cries in the night and creatures straight out of a fever dream, finding a way home might be the least of their problems.
Annihilation is a quiet flight of (science) fantasy across uncharted territory; a novel which slowly draws you into a world of sinister discovery. Area X is a vast and mysterious zone which takes on an almost alien appearance; its utter unfamiliarity creating a heady and foreboding atmosphere which weighs heavily throughout. VanderMeer’s writing is effortlessly engaging, leading the reader one step at a time into this strange, hypnotic and almost hallucinogenic world which, whilst not overtly involved, rides a line of tension from beginning to end.
Throughout the novel Area X appears overwhelmingly large, but despite this impression the narrative remains confined to a comparatively small zone which the expedition is reticent to leave. Whilst the necessity for staging the narrative in this relatively small area is somewhat apparent, my own imagination was straining at these invisible borders, desperate to discover more of the land and its utterly strange inhabitants. But if it was a ploy to make me want to read book two, it worked! VanderMeer has set me on a voyage of discovery which I am determined to see through.
Our unnamed protagonist is a thoughtful, analytical woman whose perspective of quiet observation and discovery make her an engaging character. Whilst this works in the favour of the biologist, we gain little perspective on the supplementary characters beyond her observations. Her tendency to watch rather than communicate means we never establish any meaningful connection to the other members of the expedition and care little for them when events conspire against them. This does, however, add to the air of mystery and tension; anyone is capable of anything, everyone is disposable and no one is safe.
VanderMeer’s first foray into Area X is a beautiful, subtle and incredibly atmospheric read which resonates with a sense of the unknown and the unknowable. His lyrical writing is saturated with the strange, forming a sinister and other-worldly tale which becomes increasingly difficult to put down. Whilst I would have preferred a little more action throughout the narrative and a more climactic, defined conclusion, the story remained absorbing throughout and the beauty of VanderMeer’s writing more than made up for it. This is a tale of quiet enjoyment. Of the strange. Of dreams and of nightmares.If you like your science fantasy subtle and eerie, and wish to venture into the unknown, then Annihilation might just be the book for you. This is a novel which diverted all of my expectations and still managed to impress. Jeff VandeerMeer may be a new addition to my bookshelves but I imagine he’ll be there to stay.