If Annihilation is any indication, 2014 will be a good year for fiction.
Written by Jeff Vandermeer, promoter of the new weird (see also: Jagannath), Annihilation is a tour de force, a slow burn of wonder and dread the culmination of which leaves the reader demanding more. Happily, Annihilation is the first entry in The Southern Reach Trilogy; Authority will be published in June, and Acceptance in September. (Fun fact: Whilst Googling, I discovered that the books are slated to be made into movies.)
Annihilation begins with the entry of an expedition into Area X. Area X is a contaminated environment, abandoned by human life decades ago. The Southern Reach, a government or institution responsible for Area X, organizes expeditions to study the region. Annihilation relates the story of the twelfth expedition, comprised of the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the biologist, who is also the narrator. It is not giving anything away to say that the expedition goes horribly wrong.
Area X is in many ways a pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands, save those of the expeditions, for decades. Vandermeer, via the biologist, lavishes detail on the landscape, establishing for the reader a setting both familiar and “uncanny”: The wetlands, the trees, the bright blue skies, but also large, unidentified reptiles, a low “moaning” phenomenon that occurs only at dusk, and, especially, the fungal life. Vandermeer’s descriptions of the environment are vivid, appropriate not only to the character of the biologist, but also serving to simultaneously orient and unbalance the reader.
The shifting relationships of the characters, all known only according to their function in regards to the expedition, contributes to the readers’ unease. It soon becomes evident to the biologist (and, thus, the reader) that all is not as it seems. The psychologist, the leader of the expedition, appears to know more than she is saying, and is armed with phrases that provide her influence over the other team members, even to the point of subverting their independence. This knowledge complicates the biologist’s relationship with the surveyor, who becomes suspicious of both her and the psychologist. Who can be trusted?
The focus of the story is the exploration of two local landmarks, the lighthouse, which appears on the team’s maps and appears to have been the scene of vicious assaults, and the “Tower,” a strange inversion of the lighthouse, really, that tunnels downward into the earth and in which the surveyor and the biologist discover words written with luminescent fungi: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…” Needless to say, the discovery of the words unnerves the team, and the Tower is the scene of some of the expedition’s most horrific moments.
It’s impossible to provide more detail about the story without giving away elements that should be discovered by individual readers. Suffice it to say that Annihilation lives up to the appellations of “thriller” and “new weird.” The revelations are as disorienting as the mysteries.
Annihilation is a page turner, a masterfully crafted novel that demands readers’ attention. Vandermeer’s storytelling skills are on full display here, using setting, character and plotting to create in the reader not only a growing sense of dread, but also the need to confront the source of that dread. This readers’ only regret is that Annihilation, at 200 pages, wasn’t longer, and that Authority and Acceptance aren’t immediately available. Highly recommended.
Find more Annihilation resources here.