Annihilation: weird environmental apocalypse

Book cover: Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerI admit it. I bought this because the cover is SO DAMN PRETTY, and I make no apologies for it. It’s also mysterious, weird and several shades of interesting. Nobody can enter Area X unless the Southern Reach sends them in; expeditions are carefully controlled – and results aren’t published. The twelfth expedition has no idea what really awaits them…

The twelfth expedition is an all-female team consisting of a psychologist, surveyor, biologist and anthropologist. Narrated by the biologist, a very cold fish who keeps the world at arm’s length and then some, the novel drops clues from the start that things are not what they seem, and rapidly transforms from a mystery/thriller to an introspective diary focusing on questions of identity, perception and understanding.

The team are inserted into Area X under hypnosis, the first clue that everything we know may be false. The Southern Reach is a shadowy (government?) organisation that is investigating the mysterious, abandoned wilderness Area X. Later we learn that Southern Reach ‘took their names’ during training (and in extremis, this finally bothers the surveyor, who seeks to prove her companion’s humanity by begging for her name); eventually, we find out that all previous explorers have died in the Area or on their return. The team themselves seem unconcerned by this last point – or perhaps only the biologist is. She, we come to realise, had no attachments to keep her in the world, having lost her estranged husband with the 11th expedition.

Emotionally aloof, more interested in ecosystems than people, her narration keeps the reader at a distance. She is a harsh judge of her fellow explorers, but we slowly realise through her inclusion of episodes about her childhood and her marriage that her internalisation of her emotions doesn’t make them less strongly felt. Equally, that her apparently objective account is about as unreliable as they get – not only because she herself soon realises that she can no longer trust her perceptions.

Annihilation is about transitions – geographical, physical, emotional – explored through Area X, the lies of Southern Reach, and the tranformative alien presence living within it. It’s weird and includes elements of Cthulhu-esque horror, but the biologist’s cool narration shields you from the impact of almost everything. Her account of her experiences is numb, possibly an attempt at scientific objectivity even though she knows she cannot possibly explain most of what she has seen. But it’s mostly (for me) about the biologist’s emotional journey. It’s going to make a stunning, haunting and hopefully far from mainstream movie (I found it cinematic before I discovered it has already been optioned).

As an aside, the choice to make the entire cast female is interesting. In the absence of names or personalities (they’re not there to study each other, and as an introverted outsider the biologist has little interest in the humanity of her colleagues) they could just as easily be male. Or alien. They are deliberately two-dimensional, with hints of depths that the narrator simply skims over. All this being true, it was just nice that the (male) author had chosen to make them all female – because why not.

The first in the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation wasn’t what I expected, and I was about halfway through when I realised I needed to adjust my filters to really get engaged. I think a reread will make it a very different (and even more successful) book for me, and I’m looking forward to that. However, on this first read, I was slightly distracted by my expectations and by a mild frustration with the prose. I can see why Annihilation gets compared to Atwood by some reviewers, but I can’t help but think she (or Michel Faber, actually) would have elevated it with the stark beauty and control of their writing.