When it comes to reading, I like to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. I was in a reading rut alll throughout February, and didn’t really get out of it until I read Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders. So, when right after finishing Magpie Murders I had the strong urge to start Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach Trilogy, I did not hesitate one bit.
I’ve had the complete books of the Southern Reach Trilogy sitting on my shelf, unread, for several years. I knew that I’d get around to reading it someday, and last Friday, the first book, Annihilation kind of called out to me. It didn’t take me long to finish the book – partly because it’s quite short, just a little under 200 pages, but mostly because it was so strange and engaging that I couldn’t stop reading it until I got to the end.
Annihilation starts with 4 women – an anthropologist, a surveyor, a biologist, and a psychologist, beginning their expedition to explore a strange wilderness known as Area X. The four women were sent by the Souther Reach, a government agency tasked to observe everything related to Area X, and their mission was simple; to observe and record anything of interest in the area, picking up where the last expedition left off.
Not much is known about Area X except that it was a pristine wilderness once adjacent to a military base. An unexplained Event (yes, with a capital “E”) transformed the area into something strange and inexplicable, and since then the Southern Reach had been sending in different expeditions to try and learn more about the mysterious area. For the past 30 years, expeditions composed of specialists with different skills have been sent in to explore Area X. Some expeditions return, but others don’t, with members disappearing in Area X without a trace. Some expedition members return to their families with no recollection of how they got there. The members of the last expedition, composed of 8 men, all returned, not knowing how, or why, and all had later died from a specific type of cancer. Now, with the 12th expedition, the Southern Reach was sending 5 women with different skill sets. Before crossing the border there had been a linguist with the group, but she backed out at the last minute, leaving 4 women to enter into Area X.
The 4 women didn’t know what to expect to see or experience while in Area X, and despite the presence of wild animals in the jungle, the place looked harmless enough. The people who used live in Area X had abandoned it long ago, possibly before the Event happened, and now all that’s left of the villages are ruins, and the only other structure in the area is a derelict lighthouse. Knowing all this, the group was surprised when, not long after arriving at Area X, they discover a concrete underground tunnel of sorts, or a submerged tower, as the biologist liked to refer to it. It doesn’t take long after their arrival and discovery of this strange tunnel/tower for the weird and terrifying things to start happening to them. Each of the 4 women were tasked to keep a journal to record their day-to-day observations and thoughts, and Annihilation is a reproduction of the journal of the biologist, who is the main character of the story. Though her name is never revealed in the novel – none of the other characters’ names are revealed either, a bit of her life in the real world, including her personality, and relationships, especially with her husband is revealed through her own writing.
Annihilation is as much a psychological thriller as it is sci-fi novel. Aside from the role the psychologist plays in the group, the biologist’s narrative is mostly introspective. The real world outside Area X was rarely referred to, and though I have seen Annihilation referred to as “post-apocalyptic,” there’s nothing in the novel which alludes to this. I have also seen Annihilation classified as weird fiction, which is a branch of speculative fiction. I’ve never heard of weird fiction before, but from what it sounds like, Annihilation seems like a very good fit. Annihilation is weird…it’s beyond weird, it’s terrifying even, but it’s also very intriguing, and it will definitely leave readers with more questions than answers by the end of the novel.
Good thing Annihilation is just the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and the second book, Authority, will focus more on goings on of the Southern Reach agency, and promises to answer questions about Annihilation and about Area X. It goes without saying that as soon as I finished Annihilation yesterday, I immediately started reading Authority.
I had learned after reading the book that Annihilation was recently made into a movie released in theaters and on Netflix, starring Natalie Portman as the biologist. Based on the trailer, the movie seems to be quite different from the movie, not just in content, but also in the tone and mood. I’m a bit curious about the movie, but I haven’t made up my mind yet as to whether or not I’m going to watch it.
Annihilation (2014) – Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (FSG Originals); 195 pages, tpb
Personal rating: 4/5