Book Review : Jeff VanderMeer - Annihilation (2014)
There are few creators I will never say no to: James Ellroy, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Laird Barron, etc. One of these is Alex Garland, writer of The Beach and, more recently, writer and director of science fiction scorcher Ex Machina. Garland released a new movie called Annihilation, adapted from a Jeff VanderMeer novel, last winter. Apparently it was great, but the movie studio went out of its way for us not to see it. It’s coming out on Netflix next Sunday, so I figured I would VanderMeer’s book a spin in anticipation. And I’m glad I did. This was one weird, uncomfortable and challenging little book that will creep you out better than any monster book you’ve been reading righ tnow.
In Annihilation (at least in the novel), there are four unnamed female characters (a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and anthropologist) traveling through a wild landscape called Area X, that’s more or less like a Civilization auto-generated map that got drunk. They’re the twelfth expedition sent by secret agency called the Southern Reach, with a mission to observe and report what’s going on in this supernaturally sealed part of the United States that nature has begun to reclaim. None of the previous expeditions has went well and it’s more or less suicide to get in there, but everyone who signs ups for it have their reasons.
Annihilation is halfway between science fiction and horror. When I say horror, it’s for lack of a better word. To paraphrase author Brian Evenson, the feeling evoked by this novel is more terror than horror. And what’s so terrifying about it? I would call it the collapse of knowledge. It’s no coincidence the four protagonists of Annihilation are scientists. They come into Area X with certitudes based on facts and observation, but not only the place challenges their knowledge… it also changes the way they think. Early on, the biologist (who’s the narrator) blames that state of mind on a spore poisoning, but Area X functions like one big, cohesive living organism and it claimed the character with the spore.
It reengineered them, but it also reingeneered the way it presents facts to you. Does it make sense? It’s not a novel you can read straightforwardly and you most certainly need to count Area X as one of the characters.
I believe it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said science was the business of the “what” and philosophy was the business of the “why”. Annihilation explores an interesting in-between. There’s a what: Area X claiming the characters one by one like a slasher, but there are mementos scattered throughout the novel as to why. There’s a living tower which seems to be writing the story of these characters in real life, the psychologist behaves like a puppet acting on behalf of an invisible force. Not all of these occurrences have logical explanation, but 1) it’s the first volume of a trilogy and 2) Who gives a shit? What’s more terrifying than a slasher that is everywhere and nowhere at once… and that might kill you or just make your a part of itself?
Annihilation does not exactly provide conventional thrill. I believe the back cover blurb called the feeling it evoked: “metaphysical dread”, which explains it better than I ever could. It was halfway between Brian Evenson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. I don’t know how popular this novel would’ve been without Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, but I’m glad such an intelligent and nuanced novel is getting its 15 minutes of fame. I wouldn’t say Annihilation is viscerally or emotionally overwhelming, but it slips under your skin and questions everything you think you know about how the world works and that is this novel’s brilliance. A quick, efficient and unsettling read.