Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher: FSG Originals
Release date: February 2014
Source: Signed paperback from San Diego Comic Con
The nitty-gritty: A beautiful and strange story filled with uncanny mysteries and an overwhelming feeling of dread.
On the seaward side, another wall, an even stouter-looking fortification high on the crumbling dune, topped with broken glass and, as I drew near, I could see crenellations that created lines of sight for rifles. It was all in danger of falling down the slope onto the beach below. But for it not to have done so already, whoever had built it must have dug its foundations deep. It appeared that some past defenders of the lighthouse had been at war with the sea. I did not like this wall because it provided evidence of a very specific kind of insanity.
I’m late to the game in reading and reviewing this first installment of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, but I’m grateful for Sci-Fi November, which propelled me to make time for a science fiction story that I’ve been trying to read, amidst all my review obligations. I confess to never having read Jeff VanderMeer before now, and I feel like slapping myself silly for that! I even own several of his books, so I don’t have an excuse, other than the tired “I don’t have time to read everything!” VanderMeer is a seasoned author, having already written at least seven novels and countless short stories. He’s been an editor of anthologies and won such esteemed awards as the World Fantasy and Locus Awards, to name two. If you haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, I suggest you start with his latest, Annihilation. Although the term “new weird” is often mentioned in the same breath as his name, I didn’t feel as if this book fell into that genre, or if it did, it seemed to be an accessible kind of new weird.
Annihilation was odd and hypnotic and melancholy and it made me dizzy and exhilarated and sad. In some ways it reminded me of the television show Lost, where there are strange things to discover around every corner. If you’re looking for an action-packed plot, you won’t find it here. Rather, VanderMeer builds a kind of dreadful suspense by slowly giving us hints of the weirdness and horrors of Area X. Four women have just arrived at Area X, members of the twelfth expedition (eleven expeditions have come before them, and all have ended in death or disappearance). The biologist, the psychologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist have trained and been analyzed and deemed fit to be part of the expedition. Upon arriving in the lush and multi-habitat area, they set up camp and begin to explore, looking for clues that might shed light on what happened to the previous expeditions. They are given journals where they will each record their own experiences and reactions to Area X.
The story is narrated by the biologist, and the book is her journal. The story begins as the four explorers stumble upon a landmark that isn’t on the map they’ve come armed with—a “tower” that appears to have sunk underground, tunneling down into the earth with no explanation. The discovery of this tower—or “tunnel” as the other three call it—sets off a chain of events that will test the sanity of each member of the team. Wondrous and terrible things, real or imagined, are about to happen, because Area X is quite unlike any place you’ve ever experienced.
Much of what made this story work for me was the ambiguity of what is happening in Area X. Normally that would frustrate me, but VanderMeer manages—somehow—to draw the reader into the chaotic mindset of the biologist, making us question everything she sees and hears. From the unexplainable thing they see in the tower (I’ll let you discover that on your own!) to the wide variety of animal and insect life that lives in Area X, each new mystery is scientifically scrutinized by the narrator (she is a biologist, after all), as she tries to rationalize everything, even if there isn’t any rational explanation. In one of the stranger events, the biologist sees a dolphin swimming toward her that gazes at her with very familiar eyes. This completely creepy scene made me wonder what had actually happened to the people on the previous expeditions.
The story is divided between two main landmarks—the tower and the lighthouse—and I loved the way the two structures, one rising into the sky and the other tunneling into the earth, played off each other. Both are scenes of great violence, because terrible things have happened—and are happening—in Area X.
Despite the short length of the book, VanderMeer gives us lots of character development, as we get to see the other three members of the team through the biologist’s eyes, and even better, she gives us a peek into her own past. One of the most poignant parts of the story was learning that the biologist’s husband was part of the eleventh expedition, and that he is now dead. As she makes her way through the wonders and horrors of Area X, she reminisces on bits of her marriage, recalling the marital problems they were having right before he left, their early years together, and how utterly wrong they seemed to be for each other. At one point she says:
“…I loved him, but I didn’t need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.”
By the end of the story, there was still so much left unresolved, so many mysteries still unraveled. What is the border, and why can’t they remember what it was like to cross it? What is the meaning of the strange thing they found in the tower? And how long, really, have expeditions been coming to Area X? Only the Southern Reach knows the answers, and I’m hoping for some myself in the next two books. Highly recommended.
Have you read the Southern Reach trilogy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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