During our hike from the border to the base camp near the coast, we had experienced almost nothing out of the ordinary. The birds sang as they should; the deer took flight, their white tails exclamation points against the green and brown of the underbrush; the raccoons, bowlegged, swayed about their business, ignoring us. As a group, we felt almost giddy, I think, to be free after so many confining months of training and preparation. While we were in that corridor, in that transitional space, nothing could touch us. We were neither what we had been nor what we would become once we reached our destination. (p. 15)The above quote, which appears early in the opening novel of Jeff VanderMeer's The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, encapsulates much of what occurs within this story. There are several boundaries here: between nature and humanity, between the emotions of confinement and (temporary) freedom, between what once was and what is to be. In trying to think of short, snappy descriptors for what Annihilation is, two came to mind: transitional and uncanny. In many regards, these two adjectives serve as incomplete attempts to explain the inexplicable, to provide a progression of form to something for which "form"fails to apply.
Annihilation is set some three decades after an unnamed, non-described disaster affected a coastal area (loosely based on Florida's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge). Eleven previous expeditions into this affected zone, Area X, have led to mysterious and occasionally violent ends. The governmental agency Southern Reach is in charge of Area X and it zealously keeps others away from its terrible mysteries. Four women, stripped of their names and known only by their professions (anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist, and biologist), have undergone months of extensive training and psychological testing (including induced hypnosis) in order to prepare them for what they may encounter in Area X. Told from the viewpoint of the biologist, Annihilation possesses qualities of several literary genres, from psychological dramas to horror to something that defies quick categorization.
VanderMeer carefully doles out information throughout the narrative. We quickly see over the course of a handful of days the dissolution of the twelfth expedition, but it is within those scant number of days that so many events occur. VanderMeer does not set out to explain these events. Rather, what occurs is an interesting series of narrative loops, as discoveries trigger flashbacks, mostly to the biologist's recent past and her relationship with her husband, a medic who was a member of the eleventh expedition. As the narrative switches seamlessly between the (recent) past and present, there are some interesting clues that are found within this "tower" (some viewed it as a tunnel of sorts) near the expedition's base camp. The reader encounters things in transition: former habitations transforming back to a more "pristine" state, wildlife that seems to bear signs of change under the surface, structures that feel alive and which seem to exude something that the expedition members cannot grasp. Yet none of these elements receives detailed explanations. Instead, like the black box that each member carries, there is the sense that their purpose is not known, only that if a flashing red light comes on, it is best to high-tail it out of there.
Some reviewers have compared Annihilation to works by H.P. Lovecraft or to the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic. Yet I found little of these within VanderMeer's tale. If anything, the narrator reminds me more of Joseph Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness in the way that she outlines the natural setting and provides a rolling series of contrasts between events prior to and after entering Area X that serve to deepen this sense of uncanny weirdness that is transpiring. Yet what ultimately inspired the structure of the tale pales in comparison to how it is executed and in Annihilation VanderMeer has created something that feels at first familiar, whether it be in the human relationships discussed or the natural environment, before events careen toward something that feels in turn threatening and enticing.
The climax is difficult to describe. It is an encounter, of sorts, but it does not solve any mysteries cast up over the course of the novel. If anything, it deepens them, furthering this sense that something beyond our ken is occurring and that what is important is not so much what we know but how we try to create patterns into which these uncanny events (and creatures) are placed. There is a comfort to categorizations, which is why Annihilation's steadfast refusal to create such "safe" boxes makes this a fascinating opener to a very promising series.
Characterization is of paramount importance in stories such as this and the biologist is a fascinating character in that she is a very dynamic character in spite of the fact that she never really reveals herself to us. We see how she changes and the transitions through which she passes in order to understand her husband and what he might have encountered there in Area X, but she herself manages to avoid scrying. At novel's end, she is still in possession of her mysteries, as she continues to press on into the wild in search for more information about her husband and why Area X and its "tower" and distant lighthouse have come to the threshold of transition.
Although the second novel, Authority, will likely reveal some of these kept secrets, Annihilation ends on a pitch-perfect note: much has occurred within it, but explanations are still left hanging in the balance for readers who want to puzzle out just what the twelfth expedition and its predecessors encountered there. Everything seems to be in a state of flux, from the creatures within to the biologist herself. It is this unsettling uncanny state of transition that leaves this reader eager to read more of this excellently-written opening novel. Highly recommended.