In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.
The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.
Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.
Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.
Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.
Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.
Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self. And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.
I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!
I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!
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