Title – Annihilation
Author – Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. Twelve expeditions have been sent into Area X to investigate what is happening. The first returned with tales of a pristine landscape. A virtual Garden of Eden. The second expedition committed mass suicide. The third turned the guns on each other. The eleventh expedition returned, shells of their former selves, all soon dying of an unexplained cancer. This is the record of the twelfth expedition.
“…If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you…”
The Southern Reach, the government agency charged with investigating all things doing with Area X, has prepared a twelfth expedition. Hoping to use all that had been learned previously, they believe they are ready to learn the secrets of Area X. How it came to be. Why it affects so many so differently and why it is changing now. They send in four researchers. A biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a psychologist.
“…I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. Besides, we were always strongly discouraged from using names. We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and “anything personal should be left behind.” Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X…”
The four researchers arrive in Area X and immediately understand that where they are cannot be natural. Changes occur to the world around them, but it is the changes that occur within that haunt them most. Inside Area X, they will face that which can destroy them. In Area X, they will lose what little is left of themselves.
Annihilation is book one in the Southern Reach Trilogy and it gets the tale of with a haunting and deeply unnerving start. It is a book onto itself. If it wasn’t for the cover stating it is part one of a trilogy, you would not know it from the story. It is its own tale. Complete and disturbing.
VanderMeer does a terrific job of building suspense and isolation. Not only are the four researchers separated from the rest of the world, but they also immediately feel a sense of distrust and apprehension from one another. In refusing to name the characters, only allowing them their titles, VanderMeer does a brave and bold act. He does humanize his characters, making it difficult for the reader to relate to them. The biologist, the narrator of the story, does an admirable job of weaving the life she left behind with the happenings of Area X. Her own secrets perhaps leading to her being chosen as part of the expedition and at once a strength but also a great weakness. Her survival depending on how well she can leave those parts of her behind until all is left is what Area X will allow.
Annihilation has all the hallmarks of a good horror story. It is in effect a haunted house tale without the brick and mortar. It is the landscape, so lush and green, yet able to fill all who enter it with such an overwhelming sense of desolation, that serves as the structure of the haunted house. Together or separated, the team must tear out its secrets, while guarding their own. The atmosphere is one of dread, as thick as a rolling fog, and fills you from within and without.
An excellent start to the series, I hope the next novels are just as good.