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Aliens and Alienation
on 15 September 2014
`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.