Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014
Series: Southern Reach #1
Genres: Fiction, New Weird, Science Fiction, Horror
Verdict: Atmospheric, creepy, interesting
Let me start by saying I freaking love Jeff VanderMeer. This isn’t the first book of his that I’ve read. It is the first that i’m reviewing for my blog though.
So there’s a Netflix movie. I’ll say that I held off on watching the movie until I’d read the book, which may have been a mistake because after reading the book the movie made little sense to me. It frustrated me that they’d changed the plot and characters slightly. So maybe I should have waited a while? Not sure. Anyway, I loved this book. I’m already fairly into book 2 of the series to unravel the mystery further.
An all-female team, made up of an Anthropologist, a Surveyor, a Psychologist, and a Biologist, are the next expedition to investigate the mysterious Area X. The previous expeditions did not come to a happy end. They disappeared, mysteriously reappeared with none of their original personality, died of cancer and various other malign ailments. They have killed each other. Why would a new team go in? Curiosity apparently.
There’s a detachment here, where no character in this book, no person at least, is referred to by their name. The expedition team refer to each other by their professions, I’m pretty sure they don’t actually know each other’s names.
Our narrator for this story is the Biologist. She desires solitude and enjoys observing tiny ecosystems in unexpected places. She prefers to keep her observations and opinions to herself. We learn that this was a cause of strife in her marriage to a medic who had volunteered to go to Area X on the previous expedition. He came back, just appeared in their house one day, with no memory of the trip back. He was also missing vital parts of his personality. He seemed confused, detached from everything. He later dies of cancer. I’m still not exactly sure why she volunteered, I think it was curiosity and the mystery of it all. She admits afterward that she wished she’d gone for him, her husband.
So the Area X part of the story starts with the team inside the Boundary. They were hypnotised by the Psychologist to protect their minds while entering Area X. They set up at base camp and after the first night discover a spiral staircase (that the Biologist calls a Tower, the rest a Tunnel) descending into the ground. On the inner wall of the staircase they find writing made up of a strange living moss substance. The Biologist accidentally inhales a spore and from then on is tasked to keeping her “transformation” a secret from the rest of the team. She discovers, now that the spore has made her immune, that the Psychologist was using hypnotic suggestion to make the rest of the team more biddable. The group returns to base camp for the night, hearing an odd, creepy moaning from far away.
The pace of the story picks up from here, with the Biologist making many discoveries about the area, some sad, some weird, some creepy. There’s an otherworldly encounter with a creature called the Crawler and the mystery of the area deepens. The book closes with the Biologist saying that she does not plan to return home, choosing to stay and find out what happened to her husband. I think it’s at this point that she realises what she loved about him, something that probably comes too late and made me quite sad.
This is a well-written story about grief, insanity, loneliness, self-destruction with a very thick veneer of science-fiction. I absolutely loved it. It’s atmospheric, the writing is excellent, it’s a very descriptive and interesting. My vote is always for Jeff VanderMeer.