Annihilation (2014) is a super creepy (but awesome) little book about an expedition sent across the Border to undertake the twelfth investigation of Area X. This is, in fact, a large coastal land area that suffered a still-undefined and devastating “event” 30 years previous. A secret branch of the government, known as the Southern Reach, has regularly been sending expeditions to Area X to investigate, with questionable success.
Each expedition is formed with different variables (ie. different gender ratios, different roles, etc.) in an attempt to discover what will improve results. The first person narrator of the novel, who we only ever know as “the biologist”, is part of the 12th expedition, formed entirely of women because the Southern Reach hasn’t tried that before. She recounts, in chilling detail, what happens after her team arrives at the base camp established by their predecessors.
This books is so short that revealing more than the basic plot really puts me in danger of giving away too much. I will say, however, that the thing I found the most disturbing about this novel is the use of hypnosis. The psychologist is instructed by the Southern Reach to use hypnosis to keep the other team members calm on the crossing to Area X, but the biologist reveals to us the true implications of this “approved” tactic. These women hand over control of their minds for something they are told will benefit them, but what actually happens is completely different.
I should also say that the effect of this book is itself hypnotic; I felt like something was pushing or driving me to reach the end.
Annihilation is book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy; book two, Authority is expected in May and Acceptance in September. I think this might be what I like the least about this book. Books two and three don’t seem to be directly related to book one, so I can see why a trilogy format might be chosen, but you could just as easily publish one decent-sized book and put it in three parts. This annoyance aside, I really liked this book and I will be reading the other two. According to VanderMeer’s website, the film rights to this trilogy have been optioned by Paramount!
Interesting factoid: Jeff VanderMeer is known for his contributions to the “New Weird” literary genre, which can be described as fiction that subverts clichés of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends, and breaks down the barriers between fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror. I have to say that despite VanderMeer’s own assertion that the New Weird “is dead”, I feel like this is a thread that runs through some of my favourite reads.
Readers have compared Annihilation to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and having absolutely no idea what that means I think my next read will be one of his. I picked up At the Mountains of Madness (1931) the same day I bought Annihilation, so I’ll get right on it.