Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Year Of Publication: 2014
Genre: Science-Fiction, Dystopian
Spoilers to follow.
Intentionally abstract and maddeningly open-ended, Annihilation is a tense, mysterious, and just plain weird opening salvo in author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.
Set in “Area X,” an overgrown and abandoned parcel of land in whatever-the-hell country, planet, or solar system we’re set (I haven’t read the final two installments in this series), Annihilation follows the 12th expedition sent to explore the area – a four-women team made up of a biologist (our narrator, from whose diary we are reading), an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor.
It’s the 12th expedition, so whatever the Southern Reach – a shady organization- was looking to accomplish clearly has not come to fruition. Nor are we privy to the answer, at least not in this novel. But VanderMeer does drop little nuggets of hints along the way, enough to feed the starving readers who pine for information.
The first expedition mapped the area, the second committed mass suicide, the third ended in a survivor-less gun battle. The 11th all returned home, only to develop cancer within months of arrival. Then there’s the 12th.
We learn more about Area X as the biologist and the rest of the expedition explore the space. There’s a tower (though others see it as a tunnel) that demands much of their time and attention. It may or may not be a living organism, though there is clearly a living organism at work within it. Nicknamed “the Crawler,” the organism is a kind of moving, glowing fungus hard at work writing stories of cursive text the length of the tower.
An overreaching curiosity causes the biologist to ingest some of “the Crawler,” resulting in special abilities that makes her hard to control, and more than a little dangerous.
She finds her way to a deserted lighthouse, and finds the diaries of each of the past 11 expeditions. It colors our perspective, slightly, of the world the biologist inhabits, and sets her off on a quest that carries the book into its sequel. With Annihilation we’ve barely scratched the surface.
With VanderMeer, we’re in good hands. He’s one with nature, providing us beautiful passages ruminating on the natural world and it’s ruin, and he’s clearly knows his way around a mystery – tugging at our sense of curiosity while knowing just how much to feed us to keep us from starving. In fact, he knows how to keep us hungry.
So, by the last line when the biologist writes, “I am not returning home,” we think, good. We’re coming with you.