For decades Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world, not fit to live in. A secret government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending scientific expeditions into the area to explore, but not all of them have returned. When Expedition 12 enter the area over the border, they quickly encounter something unexpected and horrifying that threatens their entire mission.
The first part of a trilogy, the rest of which will be released this year, Annihilation is a fast paced and chilling read. At just under 200 pages, it's a short novel, which I read in one go.
The story crosses several genres, from science-fiction to horror to psychological thriller, which makes it difficult to define. But it's a thought provoking read that deals with human identity and fear, as the expedition encounter a number of inexplicable and horrifying things that may or may not have a transformative effect on them.
It's difficult to review this without giving too much away, but as the story progresses there are a number of frightening revelations that make the members of the expedition reconsider what they have been told about Area X and the people who travelled there before them. There are many horrors in this book that are suggested or that remain unseen, which leaves the reader to imagine all kinds of things.
Although it's a short novel, this is certainly powerful, compelling stuff and I will definitely be checking out the rest of the series, but I fear it will ultimately raise more questions than answers, leaving them to the reader's imagination.
Towards the end of this novel, the first part of a trilogy, one of the characters, known as the Surveyor, insists that the relationship between her and the main character, the Biologist, would have been helped if the latter had shared her name. And this could be applied to the relationship with the reader, and as such I think I would have been more comfortable with giving the book 3.5 rather than 4 stars. Allow me to explain.
Jeff VanderMeer is an author I admire. I've read quite a few of his short stories, and the anthologies he and his wife Ann have been responsible for have been excellent purchases. One of the most recent was the Weird, which I heartily recommend, and this is a signpost to one of VanderMeer's obsessions and what forms the template for this novel. This novel is definitively weird fiction, much moreso than the speculative branch of science fiction, and as such as someone who has read Lovecraft and Howard and other proponents of weird fiction, the book holds little in the way of surprises. The structure is very familiar, as is the plot.
The narrative is one of impending doom, uncertainty and a little of the old "cosmic despair". There is no lightness in this, no happiness. In a time we assume is the future, Area X has arisen. No one knows what Area X is, but the Southern Cross organisation (of whom we learn little) has sent eleven expeditions there, most of which have ended in death. We follow the twelfth such expedition, whose members are known by their functions rather than a name, and as such are always at arm's length from us and the protagonist, never allowing us to feel we know or can trust anyone. We cannot even trust the narrator, the Biologist, though she at least gives us glimpses of her past (whilst offering us a sense we can't be sure that past is true. The Biologist is a solipsist, whose existence is so ruthlessly separate to others, even her husband, who gives us the closest we have to a name for her, Ghost Bird, and while we are being told the story in the past tense, with portents of disaster, we cannot be sure what the biologist will be by the end of the story.
The book is about atmosphere. And there is a distinct sense of something going on in the narrative. The members of the expedition represent some elements of the human experience: the linguist who never appears but would represent the ability to communicate (and therefore would get in the way of the story being told); the anthropologist who does not last long (and therefore removes the possibility of understanding other people); the psychologist who represents control and the superego; the surveyor who represents the external and is an agressor and the biologist representing the physical. From the plot point of view, things are very light. By the end of the story we are no closer to answers about Area X though we know it's incomprehensible, we have learned nothing about the members of the expedition apart from the Biologist and even then can't be sure what is true, and we know next to nothing of the Southern Reach.
As such, it's difficult to say this is a great book. It's a little too familiar, though well done. It's intriguing and I feel interested in what the next novel might do as that story is going to look a little more at the Southern Reach organisation and so might start to tread new ground.
VanderMeer's latest novel picks up, in some respects, the theme of Finch - of an Earth absorbed, transformed, made alien. Except that here the change is nascent. In plain, understated language, VanderMeer nevertheless conveys the sheer weirdness of what is going on by how he portrays expedition sent to study it.
They are four - the psychologist, the biologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist. No other names are given. We don't know how they got into Area X through the "barrier" which encloses it. We don't know why they are given junk equipment, or allowed no communication with the rest of the world. We don't even know where Area X actually is, what country it is in, where the biologist - our narrator - lived before she joined this ill equipped and seemingly purposeless venture. We do know - she tells us almost at the start - that the 12th expedition is doomed. It's in the way it unravels that we learn most - about the mysterious Crawler, the fate of the preceding explorers, what seems to have happened over and over - but most isn't much.
This book is a masterpiece of creepiness, always making less into more, showing just how skilful writer can scare, intrigue and draw in a reader without the need for in-you-face horror (or hundreds of pages - at 195 this is just the length a good book should be, I think). I'm keen to see what he does in the sequels, due later this year, to follow up on such a superb beginning.
on 6 March 2015
You know those sci fi movies where a group of adventurers head off in space only to find an intriguing, yet grotesquely dangerous, life form and the science officer is hell bent on protecting it, though it is keen to destroy them?
This isn’t really like that but in some ways it shares similar characteristics. We do have a group of adventurers, all women, heading off on an expedition of Area X, a section of the continent that has been cut off for generations. They do encounter life forms that may prove dangerous. The science officer, in this instance a Biologist, is enthralled and wants to know more. That’s where the similarities end.
Annihilation proves to be quite the introspective journey for our Biologist, the narrator. We learn every detail of what she sees and experiences with numerous remembrances of earlier times. There is much that is mysterious in this book. The further she goes, the deeper the mystery becomes and she is desperate to unravel it. The Biologist is intelligent, and even likeable, and puts her knowledge of natural sciences to good use. She is clearly a survivor... but is that a good thing?
I don’t want to give anything away so I will stop here. I did enjoy this novel and look forward to reading the follow up book, Authority.
If you like sci fi, and exploring in the great unknown, this will be right up your street.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 May 2015
An engaging and promising beginning to what was ultimately an expensive garden path to be led down. The climax of the third book is ultimately dissapointing as so much of what has gone before is left unexplained and unresolved. Like some literary scam you stick with it for the answers only to be left hanging as if the final movie of this trilogy breaks 15 minutes before the end with no possibilty of someone fixing the projector. If I'm expected to write the final chapters myself then at least offer a discount...
The premise of this novel is that a strange 'zone' has appeared that can be penetrated but which seems to undermine both the laws of nature and the human psyche. Much is deliberately left unclear. In fact, this may not even be Earth. It is a first person narrative by a female member of a 4 woman expedition. Early expeditions came to sticky ends - mass suicide, murder, amnesia etc. It's a strong plot, well-executed except that the male author does not quite pull off the female voice.
The story seems quite slow, although when you look back at the end a great deal has been discovered and a great deal has happened.
'Slow' Sci-Fi is not usually my thing. I prefer fantasy, or military, or .... However, this book is an exception. It is very well paced and is good at staying mysterious without just being annoying! I found the various 'conventions' rather constraining though. Apparently, this culture frowned upon people being known by name on expedition. Apparently, it is standard to hypnotize most expedition members in order to control them. Apparently, modern tools and weapons are a bad idea. I found the piling on of such random restrictions a bit unlikely.
Without the slight artificiality and the slightly unconvincing female protagonist I would have given this novel 5 stars.
on 2 February 2015
Not long after I started this book the thought entered my head that this somehow reminded me of that great work, "Solaris". We puny humans come face to face with something vast and incomprehensible, alien and powerful. We try to understand it with that pathetic faith we have in rationalism and scientific investigation as it also explores us, sending tendrils of curiosity into our cavernous minds, mining all.
Then another thought came into my mind; this is like that other great work, "Roadside Picnic" where something truly alien and dangerous has been inserted, deliberately or accidentally, into our world. Pitfalls and grave dangers are scattered amongst the seemingly familiar, ready to transform us and enslave us at any thoughtless moment. We stumble through a surreality, like a dream that takes on menacing overtones.
And now, having finished, I realise this is both those books and neither of them. On my bookshelf it will take its place alongside both, another vision of the truly unknown and mysterious. A wonderful piece of writing that is at once gentle and beautiful whilst fascinatingly deadly.
on 20 March 2014
The first in a trilogy to be released across this year, Annihilation is a weird and detached story about a team of scientists exploring an 'environmental disaster' zone called Area X. The novel makes no moves to actually explain the origins or even specifics about Area X. The only know that previous expeditions have been sent and disappeared or returned and died.
What is striking about this novel is that none of the expedition crew have names. They are simply the Biologist, the Psychologist etc.
This adds to the strange feel about the book. Its a very Lovecraftian story, which genuinely unnerves and creeps out with its spooky goings-on.
Its written in a very straightforward and clear manner which I enjoyed, as its not too simple and cloying but doesn't try too hard to be ultra-sophisticated. It can be enjoyed by adults and YA audiences.
If you're into weird or supernatural books then I do recommend this, it definitely leaves you wanting more. It gets four stars because its not that long and I feel that if the all the books in the tril are this length, it could have been published as one volume.
on 8 March 2015
Apart from what has been said about this novel, what makes it different from the work of its obvious antecedents (Conrad, Ballard et al), is the attempt to describe the indescribable: an utterly alien lifeforce. Representing the incomprehensible in a novel is always going to be as confusing and frustrating to read as the experience itself. The challenge is whether the narrative stays on the right side of the hallucinatory world depicted and whether the reader is propelled through the suffocating description by the story. I think Vandenmeer succeeds in pulling it off. This is a rare feat in contemporary sci fi, a book that rewards through depth rather than excitement.
I would also add that I found the main character utterly convincing - in her individuality, her personality and motivation. In this genre first person narratives are either thinly veiled representations of the author themselves, or impossible ubermensch. Good fun, but silly.
This book also deserves its one star reviews. Read in the wrong mood or as a plot boiler fantasy romp it will only annoy.
on 11 April 2015
I don't know if there are many books like these out there, but I want to read them. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.
We meet four women, only known by their titles; the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist and the surveyor, all on an expedition into Area X. They are expedition nr. 12 and they're there to figure out what's exactly going on or just not die (all the other expeditions have failed). I don't want to say anything else about the plot, because even though the plot has a timeline of about a week, so much happens and unravels at such a good pace that it's worth just not really knowing what's going to happen.
What really drew me to this book was the narrative, I love the clinical, biological approach to writing, how the world around us can be viewed in these cold hard facts and theories. It's really wonderful. What we're reading are the biologist's journal of her time in Area X and this very focused kind of writing makes for some very creepy passages. This books keeps you on your toes.