Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is a new-weird, science-fiction novel that is the first instalment in the Southern Reach trilogy. I had always been hesitant when it came to trying out this subgenre, mostly because I was afraid that it would either be horridly slow, or ridiculously convoluted just for the sake of being so. It was a terrible case of making judgments based off appearances, so to speak. Now, I fully admit that I was being a bloody berk. Annihilation was one of the most imaginative science-fiction books that I have read in years, and I’m happy that Sir Betrothed made me try it out.
The book takes place in a mysterious place called Area X, which has been cut off from the rest of civilisation for decades, claimed entirely by nature. A handful of expeditions have been sent into Area X for study and exploration, but each one has had a unique experience and faced different consequences because of their trek. The first expedition returned with observations of an Edenic landscape. The second one died in mass suicide, while the third one went down in a storm of gunfire killing one another. The most recent—the eleventh—returned only to die six weeks later from cancer. A new, twelfth, expedition has been assembled, a group of all women, whose main mission is to map the terrain and record all of their observations in personal journals, whereas trying to avoid getting contaminated by Area X itself.
There were a lot of elements to the narrative that I found very pleasant and captivating, such as the world-building and setting of Area X, the different characters, the ambiguity that the novel is draped in, the overarching motif that is presented in a subtle yet intellectually insidious manner (one I won’t discuss as to preserve the essence of the story and to avoid spoilers), and the prose style.
Let’s start with the world-building. It is excellently uncomfortable and unreservedly enigmatic. The setting itself is beautifully rendered as a lush and unsuspecting yet surreptitiously perverse macrocosm. Nature is blooming in full force all around the members of the Twelfth Expedition, with a variety of flora and some fauna. It is so alluring and serene, even though while I was reading, every single instinct told me that they were stepping into a field of quiet malevolence. It is innately atmospheric from the utmost beginning, with an amazingly eerie and panic-inducing ambiance that is further heightened by the bizarre and cryptic aspects, all the way until the what-the-fuck moment at its finale.
The sheer strangeness of the novel also works as a semi-horror type of narrative as it hits more than a few of that genre’s common traits such as claustrophobia, paranoia, anxiety, panic from solitude of being surrounded by the unknown, manic personality and behavioural shifts due to circumstances, and more. It doesn’t capture the same type of intensely tight and aggravated anxiety that horror books tend to, but it does a wonderful job of walking a balanced tightrope of suspense, apprehension, and curiosity.
The characters play a huge part in all of the facets I mentioned in the previous paragraph, particularly with the simple fact that none of them are named. They are regarded only by their relative scientific specialty, such as the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the linguist, etc. I felt this was quite an innovative move in terms of storytelling because it contributed to the veil of ambiguity so well by enveloping the reader into the unnatural world of Area X even further. It also exhibits marvellous writing talent by showing superb crafting of a fictional environment, playing to the part of escapism that books are usually used for, and building a gradually progressive unease that bites into your psyche to draw you further into the plot with the hopes for getting named identity revelations.
Since the narrative is told via a first-person perspective of one of the members of the expedition (I won’t name which one to retain the impact of the story for readers unfamiliar with the book) with journal like aesthetics, it helped to formulate a more personal and intimate investment for me to that specific character. I had become so emotionally involved without ever coming to the realisation that this had happened until I arrived at specific critical points in the book.
“Now a strange mood took hold of me, as I walked silent and alone through the last of the pines and the cypress knees that seemed to float in the black water, the grey moss that covered everything. It was as if I travelled through the landscape with the sound of an expressive and intense aria playing in my ears.”
If I had to name any flaws with Annihilation, I would say that due to the nature of how everything is constructed, with careful attention to detail, the overall fluidity of the storytelling can occasionally feel sluggish, mostly in the first one-fourth, or fifty to seventy pages.
Another potential short-coming is that this genre is definitely not for everyone. Remember how I mentioned that I was afraid it would be too convoluted just for the sake of being convoluted? Well, it is definitely intricate as fuck. There is a reason behind it and it’s not only for shock value. But the level of complexity, combined with the more purple prose style, means that it is not for everyone. If you don’t like slow stories, then you won’t like Annihilation. If you’re not a fan of books that really make you think or have a heavy vagueness to their overall point and purpose, you will not like it.
Overall, I found Annihilation to be extraordinarily pleasant, in a wholly creepy and sinister kind of way, and recommend it to fans of weird, science-fiction literature. It is in the name of the subgenre after all: new-weird. The measured development is definitely worth the schlep and patience.