The Southern Reach Trilogy begins with this Nebula Award-winning novel that “reads as if Verne or Wellsian adventurers exploring a mysterious island had warped through into a Kafkaesque nightmare world” (Kim Stanley Robinson).
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition 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 weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.
The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
Well, that was certainly an odd book. Annihilation follows one character, across two stories, in the past and the present. As soon as we get close to learning anything about what is going on in that thread, we switch to a new one. Because we definitely aren’t going to actually learn about anything in this book, get that right out of your mind right now.
On one thread, the more interesting thread, follows a biologist of no known name as she is part of an expedition into “Area X”, an area of unknown capabilities but bizarre consequences. The government has sent multiple expeditions, this being the thirteenth one, into this area to try and unlock the secrets, they keep coming back dead, or worse yet – changed. Sometimes not at all.
As soon as Expedition 13 gets there, they run into troubles. Inside a decrepit Tower there is writing on the wall, writing they can read, that says bizarre phrases and is made out of plantlife. They’re seeing things. There doing things they wouldn’t normally do. And more. Worse yet is the psychologist they bring with them, who the biologist finds out quickly is using hypnosis on them.
In the second thread, we learn about the biologist’s life prior to her going on this expedition. We learn mostly about her marriage and who she is as a person. And this is the part I had the most problems with because the biologist so closely mirrored me and what I believe will eventually be any marriage I may end up in it kind of took me out of the story. Her personality was not well suited to marriage, and it showed. She is self-reliant and greatly desires solitude. She beats to her own drum.
Annihilation was a difficult book for me. Part of it is just that I didn’t enjoy that we don’t actually know anything by the end of the book. It is full of mystery. We don’t know where Area X is, what they’re actually going there to study, what the purpose of the expeditions are, nothing. While annoying, I actually had more trouble with the fact that we went back and forth between the two stories, killing any momentum I had in either one, and one of the stories just is not interesting. At all. Learning about a failed marriage just isn’t interesting, and to me in the moment it actually felt like the majority of the book.
However, at no point did I ever want to stop reading. It was fascinating because I wanted to know what was going on. Still do. I read the blurb for book two, I’m definitely continuing on. And that ending was a trip. I’m not certain what to do with what I learned at the end. I’m not certain what the series is going to do with what we learned at the end. But I was super into it. It also helps that this is a super quick book.