ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer–a Review

ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer is the first book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy (books 2 and 3 will be released in May and September 2014). An example of the New Weird, ANNIHILATION brings together elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and mixes them together in a way that is intriguing, well written, and extremely unsettling.

ANNIHILATION is the story of the 12th expedition sent into the mysterious Area X by a secretive agency called the Southern Reach. Composed of four women: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist (who narrates the story). There are no names–it’s one of the rules about Area X. There are a lot of rules when it comes to Area X, but very little explanation. The rules are more like attempts at communicating with the area, hoping that the right combination of do this, but not that will lead to a breakthrough.

Because up to this point, there hasn’t been a lot of success. As the jacket copy says:

The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

Nominally, this expedition’s mission to to map the Area and to take samples. Although Area X has been quarantined for decades, it is far from empty. Filled with strange sights, sounds, and structures not found on any of their maps, Area X is far more mysterious and deadlier than they believed. The mission quickly breaks down–along with the minds of the expedition members. And yet, rather than running away, there is a compulsion to explore it deeper. Just as I was compelled to keep reading.

VanderMeer has said that ANNIHILATION was inspired by a dream, and the book has a dreamy aspect to it: twists in reality, shocking imagery, an unanswered questions. But unlike a dream, there is a logic to the story. Combined with VanderMeer’s writing, I was pulled into this book like the biologist was pulled into Area X. In particular, I have to commend VanderMeer’s pacing: just in the moment of a reveal, he would flash back to the biologist’s past, but instead of that being frustrating, it made the reveal have a bigger impact (and it made Area X, the Southern Reach, and the biologist even more interesting). I found myself reading and re-reading passages. It may be a brief book, but I didn’t want it to end.

And it wasn’t just a reveal here and a reveal there. The reveals were layered. Mysteries were deeper, more complex. Area X is so much more than the biologist–or I–thought it was. And so much more dangerous. The entire book is saturated with a sense of unease and menace, which again speaks to VanderMeer’s talent. It’s not a straight up horror book. Just an image here or an event there that made me squirm or my lip curl.

I’m not an avid horror reader, or a New Weird reader for that matter. But that may need to change. I couldn’t put this book down. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Go pick up this book. Make your weekend a whole lot weirder.

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