I recently caught a trailer for the 2018 film, “Annihilation”. The movie centers around four women (including Natalie Portman) who are exploring a strange, potentially supernatural area. I was drawn to a sci fi film centered around women and decided to check out the book before the movie’s release.
“Annihilation” is the first of “The Southern Reach Trilogy”. In it, novelist Jeff VanderMeer creates a mysterious area along a coastline (inspired by Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge) that the world at large believes was abandoned after an ecological disaster.
The Southern Reach is a mysterious government agency that sends expeditions into the area to explore and collect data. Every group that went in either came back completely changed, died not long after or were killed in Area X during explosions of violence or suicide.
As the book opens, the 12th expedition heads into Area X. The expedition is made up of four women who we only know by their jobs: the Psychologist (the group’s leader), the Surveyor, the Anthropologist and the Biologist, who is also the narrator of the story.
The women are supposed to trek four days to base camp and start exploring from there.
However, the team is shocked to discover a mysterious structure that was not on any of the maps they studied in preparation for their trip. The structure itself is vague. Some of the team see it as a tunnel, others as a tower. Either way, the edifice stretches down into the ground.
Inside the structure, words that sound like a religious sermon are written on the walls. To the biologist, the tower/tunnel itself seems alive. Upon examining the words, some sort of spore shoots into her face, but the biologist keeps this a secret from the team until she knows more about how she will be affected.
The entire novel is seen through the biologist’s eyes. We are supposed to be reading the journal she kept during her expedition, but she is not necessarily a reliable narrator. She has her own agenda for being there; her husband was on the last expedition. It is also hard to understand what she witnesses in Area X. Is she hallucinating due to an infection from the spores? Has she been driven mad? A lot of what she sees is unclear to herself, as well as to the reader.
Animals seem wrong somehow. The plants appear sentient. There is a terrifying moan that echoes around base camp every night.
The women in the expedition are not trustworthy either. It becomes apparent that the Psychologist routinely hypnotizes the members of the team, supposedly to help them survive, but potentially for her own ends as well.
“Annihilation” is a short novel, about 127 pages. It is disorienting and terrifying, words that VanderMeer used himself in an article he wrote for “The Atlantic” when describing a dream that influenced the book. There are no answers, only more questions and ever-expanding mysteries. The book is filled with tension as the Biologist observes and learns stranger and stranger things.
The book feels a bit like the TV series “Lost” with its maddening hints at the paranormal and frustrating mysteries and answers. I was also reminded of Hugh Howey’s wonderful and disturbing dystopian thriller “Wool”. The first part of “Wool” tells the story of one character to set the stage for the novels to follow. “Annihilation” felt that way as well: we are introduced to the weird setting and characters are mentioned, but the novel leaves the reader wanting more, which the author eventually gives in later books.
I found the book a bit frustrating. It was hard to get a good idea of who the Biologist was. She’s a very isolated person who is most comfortable surrounded by nature. It’s hard to root for someone who describes everything very clinically and is unable to answer any of the questions that emerge from her observations.
That being said, the next two books in the series, “Authority” and “Acceptance” open the world of Area X up by spending time with the Southern Reach Agency itself, as well as many more characters who hopefully have answers or understanding of what is happening in Area X. I have yet to read these two but plan to eventually.
I am very curious to see how this book will translate to film. Other critics have compared the trilogy to H.P. Lovecraft, whose works are notoriously difficult to capture visually. VanderMeer’s books have the same some of indescribable weirdness that I’m not sure will translate well to film, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens when it’s released in February.