By Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation! Nope, not the creepy little tune by A Perfect Circle.
. . .
Though now that I think about it, that song fits this book pretty darn well. Why? Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) is all about will and adaptability! Before you ask: yes, the movie was great. I loved it! It was the movie that made me pick up the book in the first place. Spoiler alert: the entire movie only deals with the events of the first book—I think. Still need to read the next two books—which is really exciting for me, because I found out there’s yet more story to go and maybe I’ll get another movie one of these days. Here’s hoping it goes as well.
Diving into the book itself, my number one favorite thing is the entire main cast is female! Rare enough as that is, this book passes the Bechdel Test too! You won’t read a single conversation between two women about a man unless it actually drives the story forward or offers event context. And even then, Annihilation is subtle. And it’s the good kind. This book drags you through it—I finished it in one sitting of about five hours—but not through adventure and excitement. No, no. It is so undeniably creepy and surreal that you simply must read on. This isn’t an “Oh my god, I have to find out what’s next” book; this is a “What on earth is going on? This is so weird” book. VanderMeer de-familiarizes an entire section of our planet by making the natural just a little . . . not. It’s like looking at the world through a prism. You recognize what you’re seeing, but it’s not quite right.
Along with a strange setting, you get strange characters. From the start, none of the women communicate how you might expect. Social norms and courtesies have been thrown out the window. Their expedition even took their names. You’re left with a psychologist, a biologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist. And this book does so well just scraping the edge of their stolen humanity. Before they even entered what VanderMeer named “Area X,” they were changed. The time the women spent training to enter the containment zone was a time each woman was subjected to hypnotism and lies about what they might face. You’re aware the narrator, the biologist, is unreliable right out the gate. She isn’t maliciously unreliable though. She’s the type of unreliable that occurs when you have a single voice giving you only the information they’ve been given and no more. No speculation. No critical thinking. No imagining. It makes for a wonderful lens for this type of work. I applaud VanderMeer on his narrator’s personality choice.
Now about Annihilation being all about will and adaptability. The women’s main objective is to figure out what’s going on in Area X without being contaminated—whatever that means, they don’t know—by Area X too. The suspense comes in the form of which woman digs her heels in and starts asking questions. What’s amazing is it’s the—minor spoiler here—environment itself that triggers the asking of questions! Each woman is in a daze until something happens to the biologist. She “wakes up” and begins to think. She begins to imagine. She begins to put pieces of a puzzle together the others can’t because they literally cannot see the truth due to interference that occurred outside of Area X. When I realized that, I began to wonder, just like the biologist did, what the expedition wasn’t told by the forever nameless “superiors” and what did anyone actually know about Area X? Were there any concrete facts known at all?
Annihilation is a mere 195 pages. All VanderMeer really did in this book was set me up with a million questions that I won’t voice for fear of major spoilers. Annihilation will keep you on your toes for the whole ride. Grab your snacks and water bottle because you won’t get up until you’re finished.
Count on the next post being about Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Authority!