Jeff VanderMeer is an adept master of the weird that is also the purposed weird, and while his creatures evoke Lovecraft, his prose is closer to that of Graham Greene and his themes reflect a mind steeped in Einstein’s relativity.
Annihilation is the first book of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s adventure meets biological sci fi meets grotesque horror. It’s a novel that leeches and presents its poisons and cruelties as art form.
Four women – psychologist, biologist, anthropologist and surveyor – are the only members of the twelfth expedition into Area X, a hazily defined section of land reclaimed by the earth and untouched for years. The Southern Reach Agency is trying to understand its biotic factors, its inner workings and its why through the expeditions it sends into the area which, the more we read, the more we wonder whether there is some connection to atomic testing or similar contamination but in reverse: a kind of biological backlash against those who’ve perverted nature through science.
And yet. And yet Annihilation reads also as an acceptance of man as part and parcel to an eternal frame of reference.
VanderMeer’s narrator is the biologist, and her perspective is one that shows curiosity, a certain recklessness in her disregard for her mental and physical self and a mind working backward through time.
The mysteries living inside Area X cozen those who’ve traipsed across its borders into living out an experiment. The Southern Reach Agency gave its explorers – the four of the twelfth expedition and all those who came before it – an assignment that, the more we read and the more we witness certain alterations and hypnoses, seems only a futilitarian project, a cover for something more cruel.
What sets Annihilation apart from other novels in its weird literary genre is its own adaptability. VanderMeer’s ambiguity is itself ambiguous: many parts to his novel are shaky, as if he didn’t know entirely what his own mind was telling him to write, but his readers will find that he also offers many solutions and it’s we who have to choose among them and glean from them what we may.
I remember the sensation in that moment of turning away that something was now peering out at me from the door below, but when I glanced over my shoulder, only the familiar hazy white brilliance greeted me.
VanderMeer revels in the earthly equivalent of the dark side of the moon – that is, the tree that falls when no one is around to hear it fall. He pushes aside our human logic and scientific codification of the natural world to instead allow to grow freely the idea that the earth has a purpose of its own and a secret closely guarded.
I had gotten it into my mind that the tidal pools changed during the night when no one watched.
The lighthouse that is magnet to all who enter Area X is heaped with past suppositions only a trapdoor away inside of dozens of journals kept by previous explorers of Area X.
We page through the biologist’s own journal and ask whether we found this one in that same heap of journals. It’s through this indirect way that VanderMeer coaxes us into his world and makes us question the biologist as a narrator unaffected by Area X. What is she still hiding from us?
VanderMeer examines the limits of human endurance. His landscape is one that’s never clearly symbiotic or parasitic but instead flits from the one to the other in a phototropic loop that seeks not sunlight but new prey. Area X has no known point of entry, only a breaching point that its explorers pushed through in a state of unconsciousness. It’s claustrophobic and cloying but expanding and watchful. Its explorers are susceptible to hypnotically induced suicide; the call word is annihilation.
We sense that the habitat in Area X is dependent on itself and breathes its own purpose in inverse to our real-life actuality of human colonization of the natural world. Those who venture into its borders are altered irretrievably: they fade to mere phosphenes, the after images of some prior marking. Or they’re doubled in the way that their individual presence is felt later on through another’s echoing resemblance, a butterfly effect through time.
Area X is expanding. Its entry point is always unknown. Its birth is inexplicable. The Tower that stretches underground is like the lop-sided continuation of that beacon of a lighthouse that rises up a few acres away. Its dimensions are exact, as if the one could screw onto the other and lock into place, and its spiraling descent provides its own blend of horror and discovery.
Area X is like the limitless realm of existence: time is layered, past activity serves new discovery, assimilated and assimilator work in tandem to push its boundaries outward. To leave Area X is to die, but even then your existence is preserved in a dolphin’s eye or the vacancy of your doppelgänger’s zombie footfalls.
Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?
Annihilation contains the preservation and continuity of life. The lighthouse is prominent on every map and has its own lure. The Tower, so eerily like the lighthouse and which all but the biologist called merely a tunnel, is conspicuous by its absence on any map. The one contains the human impressions of Area X, and each journal has its final page; the other has the Crawler, a creature made up of other creatures and writing a never-ending script that itself contains living organisms that emit their own spores.
Area X will fight back if need be. But it may also protect a chosen few.
Annihilation gets under your skin and lays its rotten eggs. It’s the cost of signing up for the expedition, and it’s an expedition that has us hoping those eggs will hatch in the series’ next book.
Annihilation · Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 · 195 pages, paperback
Annihilation is the first book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: