For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.
‘Annihilation’ is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.
It's quite a short novel but it was not exactly what I'd call a quick read. The prose is on the denser side, but never too heavy. It's the kind of book you have to pay attention to while reading, because if you zone out a bit you can get lost quickly. Hence, not a good book to read on a plane or while jet-lagged... which means I put it down a bit in the middle while I was travelling and recovering from same. It actually wasn't at all hard to get back into, though. Surreal but accessible, is what Vandermeer pulls of with Annhilation.
The story is about a group of explorers, for lack of a better word, sent into a mysterious landscape where things aren't what they seem. Their job is to observe and report back. For the purposes of the expedition, supposedly to help them do their jobs, the members of the expedition have forsaken their names and are referred to only by their professions. We see everything from the point of view of the Biologist and don't know much about the other members other than their occupations and their gender (all female).
The book starts with not too much weirdness other than, well, the existence of Area X. The weirdest thing we learn in the beginning is that hypnotic suggestion was required just to cross the boarder. We also quickly learn how much influence the Psychologist can exert on the other members of the expedition. Especially when the weirder stuff starts happening and the Biologist find herself looking at some of the weirdness from the outside.
It's an interesting book and I found it a compelling read. It is ultimately self-contained although there are a lot of unanswered questions which I assume will be addressed in the sequels. I'm not actually sure if I'll read the sequels. It's not a matter of not wanting to so much as a matter of having too many books to read. It doesn't quite beat out the other books I have waiting.
That said, I would highly recommend Annihilation to anyone who is looking for a thoughtful, mysterious and weird read. If you don't usually enjoy weird or surreal reads, I'd still suggest giving it a try because it's quite easy to follow, even if not everything is ultimately explicable.
4 / 5 stars
First published: February 2015, Harper Collins (actually a source of much confusion for me since I could've sworn I saw it for sale at LonCon last August, but maybe those were advance copies?)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 3, Southern Reach trilogy
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley