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.
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.