“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.” (via Goodreads)
Wow. Just wow. I don’t know what I was expecting with this book, but it was not what I got. And I mean that in the best way possible. After seeing the great, wildly underrated movie – which you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE, IT’S SOOOO AMAZING – I knew I had to read the book that inspired it. This was also my first time reading Jeff VanderMeer, and, well, I was not disappointed. The novel is both alike and unlike the movie, so much so that I don’t think it’s possible to decide which version is better or worse. They exist and are awesome but with different means justifying different ends.
The biologist narrates Annihilation, and is infected by Area X early on. She can’t trust herself and doesn’t know if what she’s experiences is the product of genetic alterations or looming insanity or both. As we follow the biologist in her physical and physiological descent into Area X, we learn that what she doesn’t say is even more important than what she reveals. Scenes have dual, sometimes triple meanings: what she describes as happening, what she implies also or really happened, and what the context was around it as informed by past events we are only partially privy to. All these layers and contradictory meanings made it a slow read for me, but not a frustrating one by any means.
Don’t expect to learn the who, what, when, where, and whys of Area X or the Southern Reach, the paramilitary organization sending wave after wave of doomed expeditions. This isn’t a story about revelations or justice. A woman walks into hell, changes it and is changed by it, and encounters monstrous things beyond human comprehension. There are no answers, and even fewer questions.
VanderMeer pulls you into the story and holds you there with the biologist, gleaning truths in tiny parcels until, like the frog in boiling water, you don’t realize your whole world has shifted until it’s too late to stop it. It’s an unsettling book, in tone, narration, and theme. I was off balance from word one, and the constant ominous disconnect was thrilling, in an eerie kinda way. Annihilation is a helluva novella. Shocking, brutal, gut-wrenching, inscrutable, claustrophobic, isolating, terrifying. It knows what you want and refuses to give it to you.
I can remember only three moments from these hauntings. In the first, the surveyor, psychologist, and anthropologist peered down at me through ripples as if I were a tadpole staring up through a pool of water. They kept staring for an abnormally long time. In the second, I sat beside the moaning creature, my hand upon its head as I murmured something in a language I did not understand. In the third, I stared at a living map of the border, which had been depicted as if vast sea creatures swam, oblivious to me watching them; I could feel the absence of their regard like a kind of terrible bereavement.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or get it from your public library.