Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, but it can be read as a standalone. It has also been adapted into a movie starring Natalie Portman, which will be released at the end of this month. The Southern Reach, a government agency, studies Area X, a mysterious zone of unfettered wilderness that suddenly appeared decades ago. Since its manifestation, the agency has sent out numerous expeditions only for the teams to either never return or to come back as fundamentally changed people. The first book is narrated by a member of the twelfth expedition, a team composed of four women: the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist.
The first chapter begins with the biologist, our narrator, reflecting on the first day of the expedition. Her detached descriptions of the individual members of the team, as well as the standardized process that brought them here, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Her understated reactions to the bizarre environment around her also provide a sense of how reserved she is in comparison to the rest of the women. She is curious about Area X, but its strangeness does not frighten her. VanderMeer utilizes her scientific mind to create a setting that is easy to visualize, yet difficult to comprehend.
The entire book is the biologist’s journal, although it reads as a highly literate one. There are no dates, and it stays on topic for the most part, minus a few flashbacks to her past work experience and her relationship with her recently deceased husband, a member of the eleventh expedition. The plot is more of a journey of the mind than a tangible series of events that lead to a satisfying conclusion. The mind is very esoteric, and so is this book. While I occasionally preferred the sections where characters interacted with each other, as opposed to the biologist’s examinations of her environment, there is a decent balance between the two. That being said, this is a highly atmospheric book, so if you don’t like pages of description, you probably won’t enjoy it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is how Area X affects the people and things that interact with it. In order to subvert some of the negative interactions discovered on past expeditions, the Southern Reach sets strict rules, most notably that expedition members must never know each other’s real names: “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.” They are also not permitted to bring modern technology with them due to unforeseen reactions on the first expedition. VanderMeer leaves the reasoning for most of these rules up to interpretation, which is frustrating, but that’s the point. Area X also changes people, which is interesting to see carried out. The biologist, as detached as she seems, is not immune after all.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a glimpse into an area with a mind of its own from the perspective of someone immersed in fact over emotion. It’s a unique book because it’s highly introspective, yet the narrator’s observations are so clinical that everything that she experiences feels removed, which disorients the reader. The book also teaches you to enjoy the journey, not just the destination, because while some answers to the mysteries of Area X are provided, many are left up to speculation.