It’s not often that I get to the end of a book and don’t know what to think or feel. Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, achieves that, in a good way.
Annihilation is a tricky book to describe. It’s probably fantasy, maybe horror, with what looks like a contemporary setting. Narratively, it’s the story of an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a part of the world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. Sent to explore the area, the expedition has its own strange rules meant to combat the madness of Area X. Except those rules are themselves disorienting and dehumanising.
The story is told through the unreliable narrative of the expedition’s nameless biologist, and portrays her response to the bewildering nature of Area X and the disintegration of the people around her. Or possibly her descent into madness. Or possibly both. It’s hard to tell. And along the way, she gets to grips with her own identity and sense of purpose.
I’m told that H P Lovecraft’s horror writing created stories in which even smart people could convincingly be over-whelmed and destroyed, because the forces arrayed against them were just too much for anyone to cope with. That’s how Annihilation feels. The biologist is smart, but from the outset Area X is so strange that there’s a real tension around whether she can survive the expedition, and how it will affect her.
If you watched any of the TV show Lost, you’ll probably remember hitting a point where you realised that the island just didn’t make sense, and probably never would. Annihilation is like that, except that it feels like the lack of coherence is a deliberate ploy by the author, not the result of a TV production throwing madness at the screen and praying that it would make sense.
To quote a speech from one of my favourite films (and please excuse the f-bombs), feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a sane response to a fucked up situation. That’s what this book portrays, and it evokes it incredibly well.
Annihilation isn’t hard work in the sense of being dense or massively long. But its strange natures requires a willingness to let go of your assumptions about how a story will pan out and how a fantastical world will be presented. It’s fascinating. It’s dark. It’s something I want more of, and I don’t even know why. If you like weird things, then give it a go.