Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
FSG Originals, 2014; 195 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
What follows are some thoughts and questions I had during the Sunday afternoon I spent with Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy (the second, Authority, is due in May, and the series closes out with Acceptance in September):
- Vandermeer is great at synthesis, building off of some of the promising (but almost always deeply flawed) narratives coming out of internet, videogame, and nerd culture (see: The Last of Us, the more recent Resident Evil videogames, the Red Worm writings of Zach Parsons, the SCP Foundation wiki site, pretty much any piece of Lovecraft fanfic). Vandermeer is deep in the realm of dorks and dudes here, but he puts a literary and philosophical spin on things that is surefooted and very much his own.
- Horror stories, more than any other type of story, tend to capture something specific about the zeitgeist. In this case, the terrible fear that our bodies are not inviolate, and, since our bodies are naturally just sticks of meat with a brain on top, the brain is not inviolate either. Neurochemistry is plenty scary on its own, and Vandermeer amps it up by asking how much we’re really in control.
- Speaking of: what if human beings were more comfortable without free will? What if what we would see as a compromise of our basic humanity was actually an enhancement or a comfort? And further, what do our biological and chemical imperatives have to do with our concepts of reality? (maybe don’t think too hard on these questions, Zach).
- Vandermeer knows how to write a scientist: the detached interest, the curiosity that outweighs fear, etc. Most science fiction/horror stories need the layman point of view to succeed (think about how well Alien works specifically because it’s populated with the future equivalent of truckers and roughnecks, and then how badly Prometheus fails because it’s populated with scientists). Vandermeer picked a tough needle to thread, which he does with sureness and aplomb.
Okay, that’s enough lazy bullet-pointing. What’s important about Vandermeer’s book is that it’s raising a lot of interesting questions about meaning making without ever abandoning its pulpy premise (and make no mistake: it is pulpy). The plot centers around the twelfth expedition to a place known only as Area X. Four women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and the biologist, who narrates the events through her journal and whose husband was on the ill-fated eleventh expedition – have been tasked with crossing the border into a place that has been retaken by an otherworldly type of nature. There don’t seem to be any parameters to the mission other than to observe, and Vandermeer creates a sense of foreboding and dread from the very first pages out of the way these people interact with their looming environment and each other.
It becomes clear very early in the novel that nothing about the expedition is to be trusted, from their equipment, to the psychologist (who has been manipulating the others with behavioral conditioning and hypnosis), to the land itself and its flora and fauna. The sense of distrust ticks up early in the novel after the biologist inhales some spores from a plant/fungus that has been used to write words on the wall of a tower the expedition discovers. Her contamination, and the nature of Area X as a place that changes people, throws her squarely into the realm of unreliable narrators, but in a very clever way—at a certain point, the question of whether or not the person writing her journal is even a human being becomes relevant, as does the question of whether any of her personal history is true either.
If there’s a problem with the book, it’s one common to the genre: in trying to describe the reality-bending nature of the biologist’s infection, or of Area X itself, Vandermeer has to rely on some inchoate and veering towards purple prose. When he sticks to describing Area X as a place, he manages to conjure up some deeply troubling images—a dolphin with a human eye, a human body overgrown with lichen and spores, the remains of a pitched battle between humans and some unknown things that came out of the sea—but when he gets into more esoteric ideas, the words fail, specifically because he’s writing about things about which words are supposed to fail. This problem springs up any time a book deals with cosmic or existential horror, but that it goes unsolved here (as elsewhere) is nevertheless a bummer.
Where he succeeds, though, is in the biologist’s ruminations on her past life. The narrative delves into her past and what drove her to go on this journey in a way that keeps the book grounded in character. Her detachment from her own life and from the danger around her might be Vandermeer’s most effective tool: by trying to describe her journey as a scientist would, the biologist becomes a source of disquiet in her own right.
I haven’t had a chance to dig into the second or third book of this trilogy, but word is that the novels expand outward in scope instead of trying to tell one story. This strikes me as a merger of smart storytelling and business savvy—it gives Vandermeer a chance to create narratives that stand on their own while still being able to fulfill the promises he’s laid out for the reader. With Annihilation, he’s definitely got my attention.