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Something rich and strange,
This review is from: Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) (Hardcover)
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The premise of this book is common enough in science fiction. An expedition has entered a wilderness area that has swallowed up all previous attempts to penetrate it, in mysterious circumstances. The area happens to be on Earth - as far as we can tell - nothing is guaranteed. It is also profoundly alien - whether it just feels alien or it's been colonised by an extraterrestrial life form is not clear at the beginning of the book. Possibly, this is one of the story's most haunting and disturbing qualities. Nobody is quite sure why Area X feels so unnerving; it just does. We are into uncanny valley territory here. Everything - the apparently dead trees, the tower that shouldn't be there, the animal howls in the night - could have a logical, Earthbound explanation. But the chances are, it doesn't.
What ensues is a masterclass in atmospheric tension building, memorable imagery and unreliable narration. It's the information withheld that is most intriguing. Why have the expedition members been trained separately and hypnotised to get them across the border? Why are none of them ever named? An atmosphere of mutual distrust pervades the narrative from the very first page, keeping us perpetually on edge. It's a neat portrait of toxic group dynamics as alliances shift and reform, given an additional twist that the narrator is almost pathologically introverted, unable to sustain even a satisfactory relationship with her own husband. Why has such a psychologically fragile individual been allowed on such a sensitive mission? We don't find out.
What we do find out, very early in the narrative, and significantly, is that the narrator is most at home studying terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, she does so obsessively, using them to retreat from normal human interactions and even to settle in remote, underpopulated parts of the planet. If you've ever watched a Life On Earth video and thought, "With species like that already on the earth, who needs aliens?" this book is for you. You could reasonably call it a study in alienation. I won't spoil it by telling you what eventually turns out to be living in Area X, but it will certainly give you a new angle on some of the strange and lonely corners of our own world, and encourage you to look at them in a new light.
Oh, and it might well scare the pants off you as well. It certainly had that effect on me.