Annihilation – by Jeff VanderMeer

The second entry of this month’s special list of scary reads isn’t strictly speaking a horror novel: Annihilation, in fact, is perhaps more often described as a science fiction book, and more accurately as a typical example of the New Weird – a literary movement that crosses the boundaries between other types of speculative fiction, playing with their tropes to new and surprising ends. That is to say, in other words, something I definitely must read.

Title: Annihilation

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 4 February 2014

Genre: Science Fiction Novel

Stand Alone or Series: First Book of the Southern Reach Trilogy

Synopsis: A team of four women – who remain unnamed and are only designed as their professions – is sent on a exploration mission into an abandoned coastal location known as “Area X”. The group, consisting of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, is the twelfth party sent on a similar task, and all previous ones had met a variety of unfortunate fates.

Soon after entering the area, the group finds a structure – either a tunnel or a tower, depending on the point of view – that does not appear on any of their maps, and that immediately draws their curiosity. As they venture down its spiral stairs, they notice some crypting and ominous writing on the walls, apparently composed by some living organism; the biologist – who’s the narrator and main character of the novel – happens to inhale some spores released by said organism, which somehow makes her immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic conditioning – and as such more aware of all subsequent events.

Shortly afterwards, the team gradually disgregates as its members either disappear or lose trust in each other. The biologist, who gradually reveals her painful past and the very personal reasons that led her to join the mission, keeps on exploring the area, trying to make sense of her delirious findings.

Analysis: Annihilation is written in first person, following the biologist’s point of view in what is supposed to be her field journal; while such a storytelling device is in itself quite thin – the book does not indeed come across as a realistic field journal, given its dialogues, extensive ruminations and flashbacks, not to mention its clearly literary prose – it definitely serves its purpose, providing us with a beautifully immersive (and unreliable) narration, without at the same time necessarily disclosing the final fate of the main character . The book combines the linear progression of its main story arc with several flashbacks that dig deeper and deeper in the biologist’s past, fleshing out her personality as well as the background of her current choices.

VanderMeer’s prose is sophisticated and accurate, not shy of using scientific jargon when suited, which only enhances the surreal quality of its subject matter. Which is far from being a merely aesthetic choice: the contrast between reason and inexplicability is in fact a core theme of the book, which portrays the struggle of a rational mind to grasp the full significance of absurd discoveries – or of the world at large; the biologist is obviously used to scientific inquiries, however irrational insights soon become essential to her understanding of Area X.

The exploration of the land runs parallel to that of the main character’s identity, which follows a similarly peculiar path. All characters, at first, appear somehow depersonalised by the way they are introduced: stripped down of their names and previous lives, reduced to the role they are called to play in the likely suicidal mission they’ve been sent to. Moving on, the biologist provides us with a much deeper understanding of her inner life, however this does not lead to a simple reaffirmation of her personality – quite the opposite, her experiences in Area X lead the main character to gradually merge her perception with that of the natural world; if at first the abandonment of her namesake had marked her as disposable and perfunctory, now it symbolises a deeper understanding of reality.

Most significant is also the depiction of nature, which comes across as wondrous and disturbing at once. Area X is, at its core, a place where our wounded, abused natural world has started reclaiming its power; which does appear maddening and terrifying to the human eye, especially as it defies reason and order; but which also comes with idyllic, nostalgic undertones – especially to the biologist, a loner at heart who’s always been more at home in the wild than in crowded, synthetic cities.

Overall, the novel combines a sci-fi mystery with a vaguely lovecraftesque aesthetic and with some typical themes of psychological horror, such as isolation, the loss of self, the fear of going mad. Instaed using them for mere shock value, however, the author frames them in a more ambiguous light and thus prompts us to reflect on subjects such as the limits of our mind and our place in the natural world.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Annihilation is very brilliant, thought-provoking book, absolutely recommended to anyone who seeks for more than a clever plot in their speculative fiction. VanderMeer’s prose has a charm on its own, and despite its inherently confusing subject the story manages to keep one glued to the page. It must be said, its very concept isn’t conducive of clear-cut answers and explanations, so don’t go in expecting any of those, but rather be ready to accept open-ended questions, and to embrace the surreal in all its power.

Content Warning: Death, violence, dead bodies, illness, suicide, mind control and loss of authonomy.

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