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 is quite short, just a little under 200 pages, but mostly because it is so strange and engaging that I couldn’t stop reading it until I got to the end.
Annihilation starts with four women – an anthropologist, a surveyor, a biologist, and a psychologist, beginning their expedition into the strange wilderness known as Area X. The four women were sent by the Souther Reach, which is a government agency tasked to observe Area X. Their mission was simple: 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 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 without a trace. Some expedition members return to their families with no recollection of how they got there. The members of the last expedition, which was composed of eight men, all returned not knowing how or why only to all die later from a specific type of cancer. Now, with the 12th expedition, the Southern Reach was sending five women with different skillsets. Before crossing the border there had been a linguist in the group who backed out at the last minute, leaving four women to enter Area X.
The four women didn’t know what to expect while in Area X, and despite the presence of wild animals, the place seemed 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. 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 call it. It doesn’t take long after their arrival and discovery of this strange tunnel/tower that weird and terrifying things to start happen. Each of the four women was 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, specifically 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 that the biologist plays in the group, her 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 that alludes to this. I have also seen Annihilation classified as weird fiction, which is a branch of speculative fiction. I’ve never heard of genre before but from what it sounds like, Annihilation seems like a very good fit. Annihilation is weird…it’s beyond weird, it’s terrifying but also very intriguing. It will definitely leave readers with more questions than answers by the end.
Good thing Annihilation is just the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. The second book, Authority, will focus more on the goings on of the Southern Reach agency and promises to answer questions about Annihilation and Area X. It goes without saying that as soon as I finished Annihilation yesterday, I immediately started Authority.
I 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 tone and mood. I’m a bit curious about the movie, but I haven’t made up my mind whether or not 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