book review: annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pp.
Released February 4, 2014

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)
Summary (via Goodreads): 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.

My thoughts: In my brief, pre-blog review of Borne last year, I pointed out the excellent world-building yet bemoaned a somewhat tepid plot. Inwardly I worried about not "getting" one of the revered names in modern science-fiction; was I just not clever enough to appreciate his work? That same concern worried at me as I started Annihilation, the first in VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Using the upcoming film as an excuse, I overlooked my uneven first experience and don't regret it for an instant. The intricate environment and beautiful prose are on full display once again, only now with a more fast-paced narrative that I devoured in two sittings.

With fewer than 200 pages between its covers, Annihilation mixes brevity and detail with dizzying results. Referring to each expedition member by her role alone proves that in the hands of a talented story-teller, proper names amount to redundant details. While the four central characters enjoy varying degrees of development—thanks to a rapidly dwindling survival rate—none of them function as cliches or placeholders. Each woman is framed with a depth of possibility made artificially shallow by the precautions of the shadowy Southern Reach organization and the limitations of our narrator, the Biologist. Her introspection on the other three team members helps solidify them as characters, while still keeping them at such a distance that a sense of isolation gradually builds.

The Biologist held great appeal for me, considering our similar fields of study. Although drawn to the expedition because of her husband's previous involvement, she wastes no time on hand-wringing or grieving. A woman motivated—but not broken—by personal tragedy, she soon finds abundant mysteries within the containment zone both separate from and intimately linked to her husband's fate. Her curiosity is tempered with professional restraint, each risk taken with consideration to the potential reward, rather than rushed into blindly. An intelligent woman, her observations require the reader to constantly engage, even as they're swept up in the growing horror.

VanderMeer's prose shines when building the eerie, preternatural Area X, yet he can also turn an overgrown suburban pool into an environmental wonder:

The short bushes lining the fence around the pool lunged up to obscure the chain link. Moss grew in the cracks in the tile path that circled it. The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae. Dragonflies continually scouted the area. Bullfrogs moved in, the wriggling malformed dots of their tadpoles always present. Water gliders and aquatic beetles began to make the place their own.

Such richness extends to the singular sights of Area X, whose revelation is best experienced within the novel itself rather than a review. Often VanderMeer employs a subtle menace in his description, its meaning inescapable: the freakish ecosystem of Area X yawns open, a Venus flytrap, every plant, animal, and breeze poised for depredation.

As Annihilation unfurls, VanderMeer extends beyond mere science-fiction and delves headlong into existentialist horror. Carefully delineating between revelation and explanation, he parcels out enough information to keep the story plausible without breaking its hypnotic grasp. What elevates Annihilation above the crowded genre field is how this mounting dread extends beyond the chilling sights laid out across the page. It hints at a rot within ourselves and our world, a latent potential for the perversion of body and self that needs only the smallest trigger to take root. Read it if you dare, and let me be the first to say: I dare you to.

RATING: ★★★★★

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