Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

AnnihilationAnnihilation is the first part of The Southern Reach trilogy published by Fourth Estate over the course of 2014. It amassed some impressive critical acclaim which drew my attention to it, and I’m glad that it did. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it; I might usually put that down to still being young and having plenty to read, particularly in the realm of sci-fi, but this time I know that Annihilation disturbed, repulsed, intrigued and delighted me in a way that nothing else might. That’s not to say, of course, that it is the most disturbing, repulsive, intriguing and delightful book ever written. (Aren’t superlatives a bore?) Just that the blend of these responses are perhaps – don’t be surprised that I’m hesitating to use this word – unique.

At just under 200 pages it’s not exactly lengthy, which is a good thing considering how heavily its story could weigh on a reader. Since Fourth Estate have agonised over a succinct and helpful summarising blurb already, you might as well read theirs:

‘For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border – an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those who have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.

Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.

But they soon find that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

Here, all will discover what it truly means to face the unknown. In Area X they must adapt or die.

Facing the unknown is, in fact, quite a good way to sum up Annihilation in terms of reading experience. Despite many revelations and twists, most of which are unnerving if not terrifying, the list of unexplained phenomena remains lengthy even to the end of the novel. If, like myself, you enjoy engaging with books, rather than being told what to think, then you’ll enjoy how this adds to the pervading atmosphere of unease. And Area X is packed full of unusual phenomena … most of which are spoilers. Boo! Suffice to say that you don’t have to wait long for mysterious disappearances, insanity, death, and a morbid, seemingly endless sentence made from other-worldly flora and written in psalm-like language which covers one wall of the descending tunnel, or ‘tower’ as our biologist protagonist insists on calling it. And well she might. Confused? Disturbed? You will be.

The biologist and her companions are all nameless. They all volunteered for this expedition, and they have all, to some extent, been prepared for Area X through hypnosis. If they didn’t have enough trouble trusting their nameless companions before, this clinches the lack of any corporate-team-building-exercise-like shenanigans. They guard their thoughts and impressions jealously, only writing of their experiences in journals. Annihilation seems to be a retrospective narrative which the biologist compiled from her journal: a highly unreliable first-person narrative. Self-consciously so, as she admits to withholding her true motivation for volunteering for some time. She also gets infected by something in Area X quite early on which brings about some kind of change in her. It seems to give her a strange affinity to the very place which seems intent on torturing them. I’d say that the nature of the first person narrative is one of Annihilation‘s greatest strengths, along with the biologist’s character. It seems odd to say that, because in many ways she is rather dull as far as literary characters go. But, she is insightful, self-reflective, ballsy, and through her, we see Area X through a biologist’s eyes, which adds another dimension to it. I found myself wondering if Area X’s flora and fauna had an agenda, or was it just the biologist’s anthropomorphising them through her knowledge?

So many questions. So few answers. Lots of craziness. It all left me excited to read the next two instalments. Which means that Annihilation has to be pronounced a success. And an enjoyable one at that.

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