In what might be one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read in a long time, we’re taken on a journey of exploration in which Area X delivers plenty of strangeness and more questions than answers. The biggest question, however, is will this atmospheric weirdness the biologist shares with us end up being interesting as a story?
Annihilation follows the members of the 12th expedition into Area X. Four women scientists, known only as the anthropologist, the surveyor, the psychologist, and our tour guide through their experience in Area X…the biologist. What they find is a place where things are just a bit off and nature seems to be reclaiming everything. They are given a mission to explore and map Area X and to observe all they see within, including changes in each other. The only thing they know about Area X is from the very limited map they are given upon entering. There’s a lighthouse a distance away from their base camp that they need to explore and not much else is known about strange, and possibly dangerous, place they now find themselves. Upon the first explorations into the wilderness around them, they find a tunnel into the ground which the biologist insists on referring to as a tower. Inside the tower lay secrets and death in the darkness below. Mysterious and ominous writing covers the walls, somehow written in an organic moss and fungus-like “ink” which the biologist promptly inhales spores from by getting to close. These spores trigger changes within her, but also Area X seems to be causing havoc with the rest of the team as well. It doesn’t take long for the foursome to turn on each other, people start dying and mysteries deepen. All this as the biologist, in cold scientific fashion, is pulled to investigate further no matter what strange events seem to be unfolding around her. By the end we are left unsure just what is real and what is the result of a spore infected mind that may or may not be hallucinating. There are plenty of interesting questions to mull over as Area X is expanding and we don’t yet know what is actually happening.
This book starts slow, but give it time. Understand you are reading a story told in the first person by a very unreliable narrator in the biologist. What we get is a beautifully atmospheric tale in which the biologist recounts her experience in Area X via her journal. The language and writing style of Annihilation is, on the surface level, very basic or bland. But it’s only as you let yourself become immersed that you realize it seems to be a very intentional choice by VanderMeer. A choice that serves to increase the feeling of being unsettled or in a state of unease by what you are reading. There are moments in this book where the biologist SHOULD be freaking out, but she’s so focused on her fascination with the biology of Area X that even people dying around her is somewhat shrugged off. It’s a style of writing that I can understand frustrating some people when they read it, yet I found it wholly engaging and fascinating.
In a book that does all it can to NOT feature huge amounts of character building, we don’t even get names for our characters beyond their professions, VanderMeer manages to FULLY immerse us in the skewed outlook on life that the biologist has. We’re given a chance through the course of this book to KNOW and UNDERSTAND the biologist as she explores the other main character in this book – Area X.
If you are a fan of science fiction, weird horror, and atmospheric stories designed to leave you thinking long after the last page then this is the book for you. There’s a quality to the writing of this story that is at once calm and beautiful yet a laced with a sense of dread you can’t escape. There are a lot of moments that will leave you needing to know, to understand, more. But that’s also kind of the point of this book – humans can attempt to understand the natural world, but there are so many parts of the natural world we can never understand because we, as humans, sit in a different category than something like a fungus for example. The book isn’t without its problems, it is a slow and melancholy approach to storytelling that many may find to be a turn off. It presents more questions than it answers and it’s a book that has a strong potential for readers to feel unsatisfied with the ending.
Even with the potential frustrations and downsides, I highly recommend it to any fans of a good sci-fi/horror story that leaves you with a lot to chew on long after you finish the story. A good story entertains and a great story also makes you think – and book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy gives you A LOT to think about.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer gets 4/5 stars.