Quick, Engrossing and Weird: A Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
When I first read about Annihilation, the opening novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it was described as a cross between Lovecraft and the television show Lost. Given VanderMeer’s well-known and impressive status in the SF&F field and since I’m such a sucker for anything described as “Lovecraftian” — and since I also loved Lost (at least the first few seasons) — I waited with eagerness for it to arrive in the mail.
As soon as it did, I plowed through it in about four hours — it was a quick and engrossing page-turner. It is very much a “weird” book, filled with many mysteries and queer goings-on.
The story centers on a small expedition that sets out to explore Area X, an expanse of southern coastland that has evidently been “captured” (it’s difficult to describe exactly what has happened in Area X) by some sort of unexplained anomaly, making entering and exiting the area very difficult.
The expedition in question is peopled by four unnamed women, designated by only their respective professions: the Anthropologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist — our viewpoint character. Their purpose is to collect data about Area X and report back to their government agency, The Southern Reach.
We know that this particular expedition is the most recent in a series of unsuccessful missions. We are told that previous expeditions either failed to return, ended badly in some way, or had group members who returned traumatized with little or no knowledge of their trips to Area X.
This setup is intriguing on its own. But the mysteries begin to pile upon one another very quickly as we progress into the story.
Group members must undergo hypnosis to enter Area X — why? An additional fifth member — the Linguist — backed out of the mission right before entry — why? A large structure is found early on that was not expected or previously reported — why? The Biologist realizes fairly early that the Psychologist is secretly manipulating the expedition party in various ways — why? A loud moaning, perhaps from some creature, is heard every night — what is it?
I’ve actually barely scratched the surface of the various unexplained riddles that are for the most part left hanging at the book’s very end. My first read through Annihilation left me somewhat frustrated, feeling as if I had been given a bunch of puzzles with no way to figure them out.
It’s clear from some of the online reviews I’ve seen that I am not alone. In this sense, the Southern Reach trilogy might turn out to be too much like Lost!
However, given VanderMeer’s track record as an amazing writer, I was optimistic the second and third volumes will resolve many, if not all, of these loose ends. I recently read the second book, Authority, and I can say that at least some of these mysteries are coming into a clearer light. I’m confident that VanderMeer will reveal all (or at least some) of them in the third volume, Acceptance.
VanderMeer’s writing is very effective. For example, his characterization, especially of the Biologist, along with her background and motivations for coming on the mission, were intriguing and believable. I was very invested in the character, and her actions made sense. He is also excellent at portraying the details as the Biologist discovers them — her bewilderment is ours.
And as should be no surprise, VanderMeer does a good job melding the mysterious and creepy while also keeping the suspense high. As I said, this was quite a page-turner. Note the following:
Abruptly, something nudged against my boot, flopped over. I aimed my flashlight at the ground — and leapt back, gasping. Incredibly, a human face seemed to be rising out of the earth. But when after a moment nothing further happened, I shone my light on it again and saw it was a kind of tan mask made of skin, half-transparent, resembling it its way the discarded shell of a horseshoe crab. A wide face, with a hint of pockmarks across the left cheek. The eyes were blank, sightless, staring. I felt as if I should recognize these features — that it was very important — but with them disembodied in this way, I could not.
Another good example is the following where the Biologist discovers the lighthouse in Area X:
On the seaward side, another wall, an even stouter-looking fortification high on the crumbling dune, topped with broken glass and, as I drew near, I could see crenellations that created lines of sight for rifles. It was all in danger of falling down the slope to the beach below… It appeared that some past defenders of the lighthouse had been at war with the sea. I did not like this wall because it provided a very specific kind of insanity… Someone had tried very hard to keep others out.
The Southern Reach trilogy has a very aggressive 2014 publishing schedule (Annihilation February 4th, Authority May 6th, Acceptance September 2nd). It is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Annihilation is only 195 pages, priced at $10 paperback and $7.99 for the digital edition. I believe there’s also a hardback edition available, but with a different cover.
Interesting extra: you can see some outstanding animated covers for this trilogy here.
I was looking forward to reading this; it sounded like an intriguing Lost/X-Files blend. I’d never read of VanderMeer’s fiction, being familiar with him only as a excellent critic and editor/anthologist. The length of the book appealed to me too – in a day where self-indulgent bloat is the rule, a lean 200 page book is a plus when so many other things are competing for my reading time. And then…I read it. I’m glad you liked it James, but I was very disappointed. I know that stories like this walk a fine and difficult line between telling too much and telling too little – and I also understand that this is only the beginning of the tale – But I thought it was so ineptly done that I am fated never to delve any further into the mysteries of the Southern reach; wild horses couldn’t get me to read the rest of the trilogy. Ultimately, the situation was so fuzzy/muddled/vague/contradictory that frustration cancelled out any pleasure the set up provided, and unlike you, I didn’t find any of the characters at all interesting or involving. I’m likely in the minority, I know, at least judging form the ecstatic blurbs (though we do live in an age of runaway Blurb Inflation).
Really, if you haven’t hooked me after 200 pages, then this is a fish that’s going to get away. Perhaps I’m getting impatient in my old age, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Read proudly — put the duty of being read invariably on the author. If he is not read, whose fault is it? I am quite ready to be charmed, but I shall not make-believe I am charmed.” I just wasn’t charmed.
Thomas Parker: “I just wasn’t charmed.”
Fair enough. The world is full of too many good books waiting to be read to waste time on non-charming books.
Look out for my next review of Authority though. The next volume in the trilogy is much different from the first volume.
[…] which has a very aggressive 2014 publishing schedule. I recently reviewed the first volume, Annihilation. Though I loved the first book, I also found it incredibly frustrating in that it stacked up a lot […]