Annihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff Vandermeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I don’t review a lot of prose fiction on this site, mainly because I’m usually about a year behind the genre publishing world, if not more (and that pile just keeps building). But every once in a while I am compelled to pick up a novel, and read it, as soon as it comes out. Ever since I first heard about it nearly two years ago, I’ve known that Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy) would be one of those books.
I was first turned on to Jeff Vandermeer’s writing through his fan-favorite Ambergris cycle, and ever since that series concluded with 2009’s Finch, I’ve been hungry for his next uniquely weird creation. Before reading this novel it’s important to understand that despite all of the anticipation, buzz, and excitement from various media channels surrounding the release, it’s impossible to prepare oneself for Annihilation. The promotional copy reads as follows:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
As book descriptions go, I can’t fault this one for being inaccurate: the backstory is succinct and easy to follow; the characters are few, and as vague, yet layered, as their titles suggest; the biologist and her mission do indeed serve as our main point of reference; and the mysteries the expedition encounters are as engrossing and shocking as the summary promises. However, as with Area X itself, there is an intangible quality that truly defines this novel, and it cannot be described so much as it must be experienced.
Despite my better judgment, I’ll take another shot at describing the contents of the novel: it is a psychological thriller, wrapped in a sci-fi adventure, swaddled with existential horror. I indulge myself in this ultimately futile attempt to define Annihilation in order to emphasize that, at its core, the story is driven by its psychological drama.
Within that narrative, information, or more accurately, the control of information, is a central theme. The truth about Area X is concealed from the members of the expedition, information about the volunteers, including their names, is concealed from one another, and it is immediately clear that the members do not have equal information, or similar instructions.
But the control of information also defines the structure of the novel. The biologist speaks directly to us in the past tense, but from how far in the future is unclear. What does she already know of the mysteries she is about to experience? How are we meant to understand her vague suggestions about the world and its landscapes? It’s at the intersection of these uncertainties that the story assimilates us into its world. Take this early passage for example:
“At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back, I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.”
At first, the biologist is preoccupied with her psychological state compared with those of the other expedition members. She is fixated on the idea that she sees this unexplainable structure as a “tower” while the others are content to think of it as a tunnel. This is significant to the unfolding drama because we know that part of each member’s task is to monitor the psychological stability of the others.
In an attempt to rationalize her own thought process in relation to those of the others, she ultimately concedes her own irrationality. In her role as the narrator, the biologist is inherently unstable for reasons that are obvious from this excerpt, but she will also be objectively more stable than any other character, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book. What is remarkable about the above passage, however, is the way that Vandermeer uses this dynamic of stability/instability to eerily foreshadow the more sinister aspects of Area X, along with the fact that this place may be a more worthy psychological foe than any of her companions, even though these revelations haven’t yet come to pass in the course of the narrative.
Given that the title of the book is Annihilation, we probably knew things wouldn’t end well for our protagonists, but after this passage we realize we’ve signed on to experience the descent into psychological crisis of our only stable reference point. But it’s too late, by this point the narrative has us in its snare too.
I could go on to analyze many more passages for the chilling layers of existential and psychological horror, and the way they channel the essence of a landscape that by its own nature should defy description, but after some consideration I decided that depriving readers of coming to these experiences on their own would be unfair and wasteful. Instead I’m going to wrap-up with one more very brief quote from the novel which, devoid of context, is safe and spoiler free:
“…and yet even so, somewhere in the heart of me I had begun to believe there was no place I would rather be than in Area X.”
There is a point for the reader too, at which we become so immersed and fascinated by this strange wilderness that we no longer hope to follow the biologist to safety, but want to dig deeper with her into its mysterious core, perhaps even rooting for it to win in some perverse and irrational way. Fortunately for us, the accelerated publishing schedule for the Southern Reach Trilogy means we only have a few short months before we can return in May.