A stunning psychological fantasy/sci-fi thriller, this book is almost mesmerising. Don't start reading if you need to get something else done in a hurry. It's not a long novel, but you won't want to stop reading until you get to the end. There are two sequels planned for this year and it'll be one of those rare occasions where I shell out to buy it at full price rather than wait. It is narrated by 'the biologist' (none of the characters are named more than by their job title), a member of a four woman expedition to explore the mysterious 'area X'. This is a tropical region on earth that has somehow become cut off as a result of an unnamed 'event', probably linked to a nearby military installation. Previous expeditions have come to sticky ends.
The novel describes the journey of the team through Area X and what they find there. It's one of those atmospheric novels that gets right under your skin and makes you jump at loud noises. It is very well paced and ratchets up the tension at a good rate, gradually releasing more and more information, but leaving plenty of mystery for the sequels. That said, it's not one of those frustrating books that gives you so few answers you feel cheated - whilst there are plenty of unknowns, you feel like you've been rewarded for your reading effort with some more facts. I would have described some elements - the tropical setting and the bizarre, hallucinatory episodes - as reminding me of the TV show 'Lost'. However this is a much more cohesive story than that and has a tighter narrative arc. 'Lost' did leave me frustrated when I felt that the story stopped making sense and perhaps there weren't any answers out there to begin with, but I didn't find that with 'Annihilation'. I happened to read it in the tropics, on my own in a jungle, which definitely added to its impact but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it! It made me a bit too jumpy in real life!
If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, thrillers or action novels, this should be top of your to-read list. It's a very fine example of all four genres. It's also of such high quality that I hope more general readers will give it go too - it's a strong work of literature, so don't be put off by any 'labels' assigned to it. The most important label to read is that it's good!
on 18 February 2015
Jeff VanderMeer offers readers vivid, hallucinatory prose in "Annihilation", the first volume of his "Area X: The Southern Reach" trilogy, which promises to be a sterling example of what he has dubbed as "weird fiction". "Annihilation" reads like H. P. Lovecraft meets J. G. Ballard, in chronicling how the latest expedition into Area X has culminated into mayhem, tragedy and disaster, following the dismal fates of its predecessors. VanderMeer's prose is not merely hallucinatory, but is also unsettling in its uncanny ability into transforming the mundane into something mysterious and horrific, and as such, offers readers something so unexpectedly out of the ordinary that it will leave them spellbound. Twelve expeditions have sought to conquer the terra incognito that is "Area X", especially after the first reported it possessed an "Edenic" landscape. The second ended in mass suicide; the third in mass murder as its participants unleashed gunfire at each other, and the eleventh in the cancer deaths of its members soon after its return. Our protagonist, the biologist - whose late husband participated in the 11th expedition - is part of the 12th expedition comprising of four women; herself, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a psychologist. They venture into Area X expecting the unexpected and receive it, ensnared not only within the terrifyingly familiar, but different, wilderness of the region itself, but by their personal secrets, threatening to bestow calamity upon yet another "Area X" expedition. VanderMeer has written a psychologically intense thriller replete in horror and science fiction tropes that will remind readers of Lovecraft, Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke, and one that will dazzle readers by the somber, almost macabre, atmosphere he projects within his beautifully wrought, almost poetic, prose. Without a doubt "Annihilation" and its "Area X: Southern Reach Trilogy" sequels are among the most notable works of fiction published in 2014, and ones destined to be remembered as a major literary landmark of contemporary Anglo-American speculative fiction.
““Annihilation!”, she shrieked at me, flailing in confusion.”
This is a very unusual and intriguing little book; at fewer than 200 pages it’s not a big read, but it is the first in a trilogy called The Southern Reach Trilogy, so sets up for more action in the remaining two volumes. It reminded me of one of those old movies, where the intrepid explorers are moving through steaming tropical jungles, with strange movements in the trees just out of sight, and the sound of animals in the distance; mingled with an episode of Lost. You’re pretty sure there’s something strange going on, and the narrator thinks so too; but nobody has any real idea just what might be around the next corner.
Area X remains unexplored to any degree, even though eleven expeditions have been sent into the area. Each expedition has been made up of various specialist members, and every expedition has attempted to approach Area X differently in some respect, hoping to unlock its secrets. But so far, every expedition has failed. This is the story of the twelfth expedition. Four nameless members of the expedition are trained and moved into Area X: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. Their names, and their identities are left behind with their past lives; moving into Area X requires a specific mindset and they can’t afford to take emotional baggage with them. But moving into the regions of Area X is not as easy as they might have thought, even given the previous expeditions’ fates. What is in the tunnel? What has happened at the lighthouse? What are the strange noises, and what is happening to the expedition members?
Narrated by the nameless biologist, we read of growing concerns as the expedition attempt to fulfil their brief; when we leave the biologist at the end of this first part of the story, there is great anticipation as to what may happen in the second volume (due in May 2014) and the third (due in September 2014). I can’t wait to see where this trilogy is going; this is great stuff – unusual, clever, intriguing, and jolly exciting.
Where (or what) is Area X?
Is it a geographical region malignly altered by some unspecified disaster? Is it some sort of alternative reality, a state of mind, perhaps, or another dimension of being? The world described in Vandermeer’s novel is eerily creepy, reminiscent of a dream world where no matter what you do, you cannot escape the grip of a claustrophobic inevitability governed by unfamiliar rules. One thing seems certain – it changes those who come in contact with it, but the nature of the change remains as yet unclear.
Who is the Biologist (or what has she become by the end of the novel)? Why does she survive when few others have? Or does she survive, this un-named observer of eco-systems, known to her husband as Ghost-Bird? Why does she insist on calling a tunnel delving deep into the ground a tower, when an actual tower, the Lighthouse, is in plain view?
What (or how) is the Crawler in the ‘Tower’? How does this unfathomable creature relate to the last Keeper of the Lighthouse? And what on Area X has happened there?
What (or who) is the Southern Reach? Why do ‘they’ keep sending expeditions to research Area X? Why do ‘they’ lie about the number of expeditions and falsify information and limit the expedition’s kit and weaponry to antiquated models? Why do they use hypnotism to control the volunteers? And where (or what) is the border through which the volunteers must pass? Could the volunteers be simply a sacrificial offering, the ‘Tower’ a labyrinth, the Crawler a Minotaur?
You will not find the answers to any of the above questions in this deeply unsettling and thought-provoking short novel, which functions, I think, as a complex teaser for the two sequels to come. If you enjoy puzzles and involved leaps of fantastic imagination, you will enjoy this.
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.
Perhaps the biggest indication of the nature of this novel is that the four main characters are all unnamed. The psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the biologist are a group of scientists sent on expedition into the mysterious Area X, a creepy wilderness that has defied understanding for thirty years.
The story is related in first person by the last of our team, the biologist. She describes the expedition in great detail, with historical asides from her own isolated life and her strained marriage with her husband who disappeared on a previous expedition.
Her account of her experience is harrowing, inexplicable and deeply unsettling. Echoing the heavy dread of Lovecraft in strange imagery and unimaginable oddness, VanderMeer paints a deliciously creepy picture of Area X as something more than humanity can comprehend. While we never find out what happened here, it’s clear that some presence — possibly otherworldly — has infiltrated the wilderness and is transforming it in confounding ways. A deep tower is found underground with unfathomable organisms on its walls, and further down something else — something strange and weird and beyond understanding. My skin crawled and hairs went up on the back of my neck as I devoured VanderMeer’s itchy prose.
Annihilation is a tricky novel to review. Any effort to explain the plot in detail would undermine the palpable creeping horror that seeps from the pages. Yet the coolness of the biologist’s journal and her clinical reporting of her experiences make the story seem somehow… normal. Character development is slim, but what we do see of the biologist is that she is nothing special. She’s just a normal woman doing her job in weird circumstances. The contrast between the characterisation of our protagonist and the weirdness of her situation make the book stark and terrifying.
You’ll have far more questions once you’ve finished than are ever answered. Yet this is the book’s strength, for it grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go. Thoroughly enjoyable for any fan of the weird and unexplained.
Four women, a biologist, anthropologist, surveyor and psychologist, are sent to investigate a mysterious island. Area X. An island of an apparently beautiful nature, which unusual effects on adventurers. Scientists before our four ladies have ventured into the depths of Area X before. They are all dead. Some turned on each other and murdered their team, some committed suicide and others died of aggressive cancers shortly after their return. The mystery of Area X still manages to intrigue scientists willing to take a risk and investigate and so we follow them, through the eyes of the biologist, as they trek across the island.
This author world builds fantastically. I was sucked into the story straight away and immediately I became as curious as the scientists about the nature of X and the crazy things happening there.
I also think the concept is brilliant. A mysterious island, crazy changes to the environment, unknown creatures and nature within and some potential for unusual personality changes in the group - it's easy to sell to a curious reader.
Sadly, the things I liked stopped there. The characters are so superficial. The main character is conveyed as a very clinical thinker, and the writing translates as such. Rather than having a quirky nature or way of speaking this makes for a systematic, boring read without any emotional depth. I'm not looking for a book full of feelings, not at all, but the narrating biologist has no personality or opinions whatsoever that aren't fact based. Very dull.
The author tries to combat the one dimensional characters by providing a possible villain. But this character was equally unexciting to read about because she was so transparent - this is meant to be a mysterious island, it would have been better if the characters were complex enough to carry this off and keep the reader hooked.
This could have been a fantastic novel; the concept is so exciting. But a dull execution through boring characters with no connection for me just made it fall flat; this definitely became one of those difficult reads whereby you find yourself measuring how far you have left get through because you're too stubborn to quit!
The first part of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy manages to present a vaguely unsettling new spin on what amounts to a familiar SF situation where a group of explorers face unknown dangers in a hostile alien environment. Just to raise the tensions, the volunteers are aware that they are not the first explorers of Area X either. This, we are told, is the twelfth expedition (but you'll soon find that you can take nothing as written in Annihilation), the previous expeditions having ended in rather strange and inconclusive terms, with scientists and investigators wandering off, disappearing or committing suicide. What's strange about the alien environment of Area X however is that it appears to be an area of natural wilderness on Earth.
In fact, Annihilation initially bears more than a passing resemblance to Andrei Tarkovsky's remarkable and influential film Stalker, but only as a jumping off point. In contrast to Tarkovsky's poetical allegory there seems to be a more conscious attempt to tie events to a meaningful new view of reality, or perhaps to a psychological reality. That, however, is hard to determine from the first part of the trilogy alone. Like "the Zone" in Stalker, the four explorers who pass over the vague boundary into Area X don't have names, just professions, the team consisting of a biologist (the narrator), an anthropologist, a surveyor and a psychologist. We are led to believe very early on that the narrator will be the only surviving member of the team. Things evidently are going to go very wrong.
The dangers of Area X aren't immediately apparent. It has been mapped before, and resembles a regular piece of Earth coastline, one that is dominated by a lighthouse. The twelfth expedition however quickly discover an unusual structure not previously mapped, a wide tunnel that goes deep underground, which the biologist nonetheless feels compelled to describe as a "Tower". What lies within is best left for the reader to discover, but suffice to say that it would in any case be difficult to describe and that it does indeed pose a deadly threat to the explorers. Even what that threat constitutes however is difficult to pin down, since the biologist's testimony - like everything else in Area X - is somewhat compromised by the fact that nothing that happens in this strange environment can be taken at face value.
The difficulty of pinning down what Annihilation is about might present a problem for some readers. There's clearly an allegorical side to the work and distinct parallels can be drawn to the few pieces of information (facts are hard to determine) we have about the biologist's life and personality, her interest in the study of life in tide pools in particular matching up with some aspects of what is discovered in Area X. What is clear however is that Annihilation works equally well as a tense SF adventure in its own right - slight in page-count but full of incident and ideas - while also being a fascinating opening to the first part of what looks like being a compelling trilogy.
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.