About a month or so ago, I was listening to Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm (which you can find here), and his guest was author Jeff Vandermeer, best known in science fiction and fantasy circles (you can find that particular episode here). They were talking about Vandermeer’s new Southern Reach Trilogy, the second volume of which had just come out, and I was interested in what I was hearing, some mesh between science fiction and horror. It was also nice to know that all three books in the trilogy are being released this year, starting with Annihilation (2014), which came out in February, then Authority, which came out in May, and finishing up with Acceptance, in September. I took Annihilation on holiday with me, but I wasn’t expecting to read much of it . . . I was on holiday with the children. But the book had me so engaged, so excited, that I stayed up too late into the night to read — it was worth it.
Area X is a kind of disaster zone. Around thirty years ago, some “ill-defined” event occurred, and Area X was boxed off. Since that time, there have been eleven expeditions into Area X (I keep wanting to call it the Zone, so, yes, I thought of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker a lot). The first came back with reports that everything was pretty good: nature had taken over and was flourishing. But each subsequent expedition was not so fortunate. The second ended with a gun fight. The third with a mass suicide. The eleventh came back, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, and each member died of cancer within the next year.
Annihilation begins in the first days of the twelfth expedition. Composed of four women — a psychologist (the leader), a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist (our narrator). They’ve recently crossed the border into Area X, have set up at base camp, and, in a quick scan of the area, found this (the novel’s opening, disorienting sentence):
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.
How does a tower plunge into the earth? Don’t they shoot out of it? It depends on perspective, I guess. The biologist notes (the book we’re reading is actually her field notes, though it reads as a novel) that the other three members all call it a tunnel (which makes sense), but she cannot help but feel she’s standing at the precipice of something, and it makes her dizzy.
The expedition is puzzled by the tower’s presence. After eleven expeditions, they felt like they had a good idea of the geography of Area X. There are still some signs of towns that once existed, and they know of a lighthouse (the see it on the horizon and are anxious to explore it). But no one ever reported that there was a tower (or tunnel).
Annihilation it’s not just the old towns that haunt the landscape; signs of the old expeditions are everywhere, and the group learns quickly that they know nothing about Area X.
I love — absolutely love — stories like this. I thought of Stalker, as I said, but I also thought Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, the television show Lost (with its best mysteries), and the old computer game Myst. These lonely treks through haunted physical space that emerge as lonely treks through the human mind.
I took loads of notes as I was reading this book. But, being the first in a trilogy, most are still unanswered questions, many may be stray ends, so I’m not confident I have a handle on all of the themes and meanings yet.
I’m definitely okay with that. And as I write this post, I realize that I don’t want to say more than I already have. This is a book to explore on your own, to discover the secrets. I’m already moving on, well into Authority.