Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Published: February 2014
Well isn’t this a surprise, I’m reviewing a book this time. Specifically, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I first heard about this book when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation from Alex Garland. I liked what I saw and figured I would read the source material before I see the movie. I didn’t even know it was the first of a trilogy. I started reading it about two days before writing this review, and managed to finish it hours earlier today. It has been a long time since I’ve read something this engaging and well written.
Annihilation is just like a good Lovecraft story, if Lovecraft had managed to write a full book instead of just short stories. Its story is about an all female team consisting of a psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and our protagonist a biologist as they venture out into Area-X, an area of land which seems to defy the very laws of science. As the team investigates, things quickly fall apart, but that’s all I’ll say about the story without going into spoiler territory.
Like I said earlier, this has all the trappings of a good cosmic horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft. It involves a group of people dealing with an entity that their minds cannot fully make sense of, no matter what technology they have or investigative tools they use. Area-X is one of the most fascinating, realized locations I’ve witnessed in years. It’s strange, disturbing, and defies any attempts to make sense of it. It is as if it exists in a plane of reality outside of the rest of the Earth. The laws of nature as we know them are not followed in Area-X, with one of the books most memorable scenes being one where our protagonist witnesses some dolphins with a very peculiar trait their species should not have, and numerous ones that takes place in a “tower” that goes underground. Everything in Area-X simply should not be.
On the character side Annihilation doesn’t excel but it works. None of the characters are given names, not even our protagonist, and she’s the only one we’re ever given any insight into. She has a rather unconventional, and at times unsympathetic personality. She’s antisocial, wrapped up in her work, and just seems not to care about the people around her. The novel is entirely from a first person perspective, so we learn about her, and only her. The other characters’ pasts are unexplored. We also only have the protagonist’s knowledge of the area and its wildlife. This is a good way of adding to the fear of the unknown the book has. By the end, the protagonist doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do we.
Annihilation’s single greatest attribute is easily its atmosphere, which is thanks to VanderMeer’s excellent writing. He manages to bring to life the vast loneliness the protagonist feels during the plot, the sadness and isolation given off from the remnants of humanity found in Area-X, and the surrealism of its ecology. While it builds atmosphere, the novel still manages to have an excellent pace to it. Nothing feels padded on or unnecessary, and when I was finished I felt breathless and wanting more.
For all the good things I have to say, Annihilation is not for everybody. While it’s only 195 pages in total and I managed to read through it fairly quickly, it can be a tad confusing at times and the characters aren’t really the focus of the story. You also are left with unanswered questions by the end, which will no doubt leave at least one person feeling cheated. I personally did not mind this because the protagonist finished her own personal journey and since the story is framed as her recounting her experiences, it immerses us into her mindset and maintains the book’s Lovecraftian horror traits.
Annihilation is a great read and has left me feeling even more excited for Alex Garland’s film adaptation. I’m nervous and excited to see if he can make a movie out of such a surreal novel, but if he has to take some liberties to make it happen, then let him do so. It works both as a standalone work, and as the first of a trilogy. I’m eager to read the other two books of the series as soon as I can.