Nature can be very strange. After all of the centuries of study, it still remains somewhat of a mystery with secrets that are always revealing themselves. Just look at the deepest depths of the ocean where toothy fish glow and gigantic squid swim. The natural world is a kaleidoscope of oddity that is always changing, adapting, and in Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer captures the beautiful otherworldliness of the natural world and spins a taut nightmare that will keep you up late, contemplating whether the ivy on your wall is plotting your demise.
Annihilation is book one of The Southern Reach trilogy. Thankfully the two other pieces of the puzzle are due out from FSG Originals this year. Authority will be out this May, and Acceptance will be in your hands this September. (I’ll be reviewing those too!) Also, you can read the whole first chapter of Annihilation right here on their website.
Annihilation takes place in Area X, a section of coastline that has undergone some strange calamity and is now partitioned off from the known world. A secret government agency called The Southern Reach is tasked with putting together expeditions in order to study Area X and discover what it may be hiding. You follow four scientists on the twelfth expedition who are only known by their titles: The Biologist, The Surveyor, The Psychologist, and The Anthropologist. The story is told through the journal of The Biologist after the team enters into Area X.
I would love to reveal more of the story but I don’t want to upset the balanced ecosystem that VanderMeer has expertly created. There is hypnotic suggestion, paranoia, a tower, and a strange beast moaning in the marshes of Area X. There, that’s all you’re getting from me. If you’re intrigued – and you should be – you’ll just have to pick up a copy of Annihilation.
VanerMeer’s previous work, City of Saints and Madmen, had a lyrical quality to some of its intricate prose, but Annihilation is off at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is filled with a much more sparse style of writing that perfectly fits with your idea of a Biologist’s journal. The writing itself becomes another window into the character. The book reads like a finely honed blade that keeps the pace moving at a generous clip and the tension slowly building to a fever pitch.
In other words, the power went out in my apartment and I was so consumed with reading Annihilation that I sat with a small flashlight gripped between my teeth so I could continue reading.
While, Annihilation might fit alongside other works of weird fiction with the grandmasters like H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, I think leaving the book seated firmly in that company wouldn’t do it justice. Yes, it is a story about the odd and unknown, but it is also about the strangeness of the natural world and the beauty that can be found within its seeming chaos. It feels wholly original and that is a testament to the author’s imagination. Annihilation is restrained, thoughtful, and feels much more real than the fever dreams put forth by Lovecraft or Smith. Sure it is an exploration of the terrifying unknown, but that unknown is so much closer to our own reality. Area X feels like it could exist.
When The Biologist reveals bits of her past, I couldn’t help but hear faint echoes of Thoreau’s Walden. It pulls you in closer to The Biologist. Growing up by the sea, The Biologist’s passages about her childhood reminded me of the many hours I spent exploring the dunes and scouring tide pools for crabs and minnows. It just pulled me in even closer to the story and therefore made the tale even more immediate and engrossing.
This book will not only chill you to the bone, but charm you with its deep understanding and respect for nature. The Biologist doesn’t explore Area X simply as a scientist, but as a curious person finding beauty in nature’s form and function. It is curiosity that permeates the pages of the book and keeps The Biologist moving forward, looking for that next new discovery. It is a similar curiosity that VanderMeer engages to keep you turning pages.
Annihilation makes you the fifth member of the expedition into Area X. It pulls you in and lets you observe and discover this strange landscape just left of reality along with the scientists. Vandermeer is a surgeon gently slicing away at your nerve endings and sense of reality. With every sentence, your ominous curiosity about Area X grows. Annihilation raises a lot of questions about the nature of Area X and the Southern Reach agency, but it does an exquisite job of answering just enough to leave you with a satisfied conclusion to The Biologist’s story, but it leaves so much more to be explored in the next two novels.
The Biologist writes, “But soon I banished this nonsense; some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.” The writing is literally on the wall. There is so much more I want to know about Area X and the Southern Reach. While Annihilation was an exhilarating and wonderful read, I feel doomed to nervous anticipation as I wait for the second two volumes of the series. But I don’t mind the wait, because it will leave my imagination time to simmer and stew in the beautiful marshlands of Area X. If you hear a moan at twilight over Philadelphia, it’s just me longing for the next book in the series.