Unsettling and atmospheric, Annihilation sets a mysterious scene for the Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a sparse, short but self-contained story set in the near future, about one expedition into a quarantined zone where something… ‘other’ has established itself. All previous investigations have ended badly. Things don’t exactly go swimmingly this time, either.
There’s precious little exposition or traditional story-telling here and we’re deliberately distanced from the expedition team. We don’t learn their names – people are defined by their roles, The Geologist or The Psychologist – and as the story is told from the perspective of just one of them we only understand her increasingly warped point of view. And what a strange perspective it is: the creepy abandoned camp, the oppressive tower, the weird writing on the walls, the paranoia and the conflicts, the… things in the depths. It’s like Lovecraft meets Lost.
I was also distinctly reminded of the mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke; there’s even echoes of the mysterious ‘croatoan’ message in the bizarre writing in Annihilation. But author VanderMeer has built a much bigger universe than one which simply reflects old legends. In Annihilation he also examines the isolation of the loner and the gulf in communication between a couple – one which is only bridged by the most extremes circumstances which they separately encounter in the Southern Reach. This isn’t just spooky speculative fantasy: it’s all about the failure to engage. The protagonist endures an instant of mismatched communication with the ‘other’… after a lifetime of failing to communicate with the people around her. It’s chilling, in so many ways.
If you expect your stories to finish with a definitive conclusion and some firm answers, then you won’t find Annihilation to be a fulfilling read. It opens to door to unsettling oddness, almost painful ambiguity and plenty of unanswered questions. The writing is precise and accomplished – at the end I was pretty sure I’d experienced exactly what the author intended. But those feelings were far from pleasant.
on 9 April 2015
possibly a five star, but as good as the tone and writing were, it felt a bit weak in the plot and i've reservations about the plots that might follow. it's very short which is in the plot's favour, but expensive for something closer to a novella than most SFF books.
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' is the tantalising, ambiguous curtain-raiser to Jeff VanderMeer's 'Southern Reach' trilogy. It functions - almost - as a stand-alone novel in its own right. However, it's really just the appetiser in a much larger three-course-meal. It certainly left this reader hungry for the main course.
`Annihilation' introduces us to the trilogy's topographic core: the mysterious, menacing Area X. What exactly Area X is, and how it got there, never becomes fully clear. The only thing we know for certain about it is that for thirty years, all eleven of the previous sorties into this pristine wilderness have gone catastrophically awry. We soon begin to see why, as we find ourselves from the get-go inside Area X alongside the newly arrived twelfth mission.
The four-woman team quickly realises that, inside Area X, their own perceptions can't be trusted. Not only is 'something' they can't quite apprehend somehow warping their senses, but it also becomes evident that they have all been hypnotically conditioned by the Southern Reach to allow them to cope with the Class-A levels of weirdness that prevail inside Area X's invisible boundaries. The mission rapidly descends into horror and madness, although our narrator by the end of the novel has become so compromised and unreliable that it's impossible to fathom from her narrative exactly what has happened to them all.
On one level, `Annihiliation' works well as a creepy, `Alien'-style action adventure, with the uncanny eeriness of Area X convincingly realised. And some of the surreal, logic-defying phenomena the mission encounters reminded me of a darker, more threatening take on `Alice in Wonderland' - complete with transformative rabbit-hole! But the real literary touchstone here is Stanislaw Lem's `Solaris'. Like `Solaris', `Annihilation' uses an encounter with an obscure alien Other as a launch-pad for a metaphysical exploration of our own sense of selfhood, and how easily this can be dissolved. Dislocation, disorientation, isolation and transformation are all recurrent themes. Once the limits of our perception are bent and breached and remade, how can we be sure who we really are? In which case, who were we in the first place, and where did that identity come from? By confronting us with our existential helplessness against the implacable, indifferent unknown of Area X, `Annihilation' is as uncomfortable and unsettling a book as you could possibly wish for.
Not quite the full five stars, though. It's such an open-ended book that I found it ultimately rather frustrating in leaving so many of its questions unanswered. I dare say volumes two and three will either scratch that itch or aggravate it all the more. It's also a book that's much more ambitious than genre science fiction, but which nevertheless sometimes reads like it, thanks to VanderMeer's occasionally clumsy, thrillerish style. All in all, though, 'Annihilation' is an entertaining first volume, with the promise of much more to come.
on 15 January 2015
I really love this trilogy. VanderMeer's prose is haunting, and is a brilliant mix of suspenseful, horrifying and beautiful. In this first instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer weaves a thought-provoking mystery: 'what is Area X, and why is it so.... weird?', which is helped by the fact that Area X is distinctly alien, and somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraftian horror. There are some interesting twists, and it was so gripping that I could not put the book down (luckily this is a fairly short book). Highly recommended.
““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 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.
Four unnamed female scientists set out on an expedition into Area X. This is the 12th expedition; members of previous expeditions have all died one way or another, so little is known about the area – or so the expedition members are told. The expedition starts to unravel almost as soon as they arrive at their base camp; the anthropologist disappears and, worryingly, the biologist realises that the psychiatrist can control them through hypnosis at any time.
As the story progresses through the biologist’s eyes, we realise more and more that the information she was given during training is incomplete and possibly deliberately misleading. Questions abound – what is this tunnel/tower that they have found? what is the significance of the lighthouse? and what really happened to previous expeditions?
What this book does have is loads of atmosphere. There is a definite, and growing, sense of something sinister at work. And, as other reviewers have said, is it reminiscent of Lovecraft in style.
However, for me it doesn't work. There are far too many questions, too many unknowns. Pretty well nothing is explained – which just leaves the reader wandering around in a fog. There’s not enough of a “hook” to keep you guessing – and hence rushing out to buy the second book in order to find out more.
I also agree with other reviewers that the book is too short, at 195 pages. It feels more like a taster designed to whet your appetite for the main story than a proper novel.
Striking a distinctly Lovecraftian chord, VanderMeer treats us to a terrifying slog through an area that lures with its familiarity yet haunts with its strangeness.
It's a slim book with big ideas, referencing a vague Event that has sealed off an area (rather stereotypically referred to as "X") from the rest of the world by means of an enigmatic "border".
Into this area a secret branch of the government (known as the Southern Reach) has thrown and continues to throw expeditions ostensibly to understand more about it. But intentions, like everything in this book, are obfuscated at best.
As well as Lovecraft overtones I felt a distinct kinship with Daniwelski's House of Leaves and more than a few nods to VandeerMeer's canon.
I loved the story, and will eagerly await the not too distant second & third parts.
However, it wasn't love at first chapter for me.
Initially I found the story contrived. The rather frivolous explanation for the expedition not being allowed any "high-tech items" grated my sense of belief slightly. I thought it better, if you want to tell a story sans the trappings of digital magery, to set an appropriate time-frame. Failing that there's always Steampunk! However, later explanations present a more plausible reasoning for a government that would deny an expeditionary force every means to achieve & survive its main objective...
The lack of using names bugged me as well. Instead everyone refers to everyone else by their chosen scientific field: the anthropologist; the surveyor; the biologist.
I got tired with this quickly as again it felt contrived, lazy even. It's a clumsy device to sustain for an entire novel and certainly makes empathy with its characters a little harder; the narrative a tad more cold.
However, these are small gripes, and I found the novel to have a turning point that laid all these concerns aside.
Indeed, as the novel progressed I found its deliberate oddness began to endear me toward the larger story; it really does get under your skin (pun definitely intended).
This is a creepy story that simmers with uncertainties and builds tension like few other books I've read. Fans of VanderMeer will be expecting strangeness and Strange with a capital is what you get.
A lot is intimated and it's down to the reader to finish the (more often than not) completely distressing implications of action and intent, on both sides of the border.
Its stark and unusual setting unnerves and the imagery is certain to live with you, as will the final thoughts presented in the weighty and uncanny dénouement.
If you're a VanderMeer fan you'll love it - fungus and all!
If you've never read VanderMeer here is as good a place to begin as any: It's accessible, compelling and does nothing to stale the newness of its Weird.