Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, a set of short science-fiction books. This first book has won a number of awards for science fiction including The Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2015 and a nomination for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2015. But for me, this was pure horror and I’m classifying it as such. I couldn’t see much in the way of “science” beyond this dreamscape of insubstantial and nightmarish bogeymen. FSG Originals | 2014 | Paperback | 195 pp
The description from the publisher is quite tantalizing:
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.
The twelfth expedition consists of four women: a psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and biologist. No names are ever provided by the narrator who happens to be the biologist, except for the nickname her husband had given her: ghost bird.
“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 women were encouraged to keep journals and this story is the journal of the biologist, as we learn. She immediately identifies herself as an unreliable narrator by virtue of her self-described unwillingness to divulge personal information, yet she continues to plead her objectivity by relaying personal details about herself – important things that she kept hidden from her teammates. And when they reach a strange spiraling staircase that tunneled deep into the earth, the biologist can’t see it as a tunnel, but as the opposite: a tower.
“I want you to know that I cannot stop thinking of it as a tower,” I confessed. “I can’t see it as a tunnel.” It seemed important to make the distinction before our descent, even if it influenced their evaluation of my mental state.”
After their initial exploration of the tunnel, things begin to unravel quickly. Strange writing on the walls of the tunnel may have contaminated the biologist, making her immune to the hypnotic suggestions of the psychologist. One by one, the other teammates succumb to Area X but rather than wanting to get the hell out of Dodge, the changing and adapting biologist wants to press on. She has to know.
“You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown.”
The biologist uncovers lies by the psychologist and lies by the Southern Reach government agency that oversaw the expeditions. Even with her teammates compromised, she continues to observe and record. She notes the impossible in a matter-of-fact voice, leaving the reader to wonder: mental instability? drugs? hallucinations? a dream? real? compromised by the demons of hell? lying about everything?
The epicenter of whatever tormented Area X is found deep within the bowels of the tunnel, and it is something nightmares are made of. Nothing made sense, even the biologist can’t make sense of it. Her conclusions are a thesis of paranormal ramblings that are incoherent and inconclusive. But probably stated better than anyone else after observing that nightmare.
Like the biologist, I had to know too. I picked up Annihilation and didn’t put it down until I was finished. Although I’m still quite confused, I loved the ride. The author uses fear of the unknown to his advantage, and creates a creepy world that is made even more sinister with each little revelation. I’ll be reading them all.
by Jeff VanderMeer