Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

A friend of mine highly recommended this book to me, and given the fact that it’s so short, I was sold. She didn’t tell me much about it, so I went into this book with as clear a slate as possible – which I would highly recommend to anyone considering picking this book up. To be frank – it’s a weird book that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but at only 195 pages, what do you have to lose?

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world 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 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—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.

I’ll be frank – I didn’t expect this book to get as violent and dark as it did. It was inherently creepy – Annihilation is set in an unexplored, unexplained alien area that is slowly taking over a larger and larger area. Nobody who goes in truly ever comes back. The overall atmosphere of this book is what makes it great – it sets a mysterious and unknown tone. Very little information is given to the reader – you aren’t told what Area X is, who the characters are, or who is in charge of the expeditions. To top it all off, the book has plenty of unexpectedly dark moments. These moments weren’t created for their shock factor – they crept up on you and served as a reminder of just how wild Area X is.

Story-wise, this book was the perfect length. I think if they had tried to stretch it anymore, the atmosphere and tone of the book would have been lost. Unfortunately, as a side effect of the lack of information in this book, the plot was sometimes unclear and a little hard to follow. Moments that should have been ‘aha’ moments or groundbreaking ones were undermined by me having to go back and reread to understand if I had missed some context. A lot of the events went unexplained, which was fun at first, but ultimately resulted in me losing my emotional investment in the book. Without an understanding of why something was significant, it was hard to care about what was happening. Using a lack of information as a story-building tool is a fine line, and this book tended to overuse it.

None of the characters in this book are given names – they’re all just referred to as their position on the expedition. There’s the biologist (the narrator), the surveyor, the psychologist, and the anthropologist. We’re never given much backstory on any of the characters other than the biologist, but this was a stylistic and storytelling choice – in Area X, candidates don’t even know each other’s names let alone their histories. What little is told of the biologist’s backstory is told via vignettes from her past that has relevance to her journey in Area X.  To be clear – this is a plot driven book, that puts low value in its characters.

As I said before, this is a fundamentally weird and confusing book, but I really got into it. What it lacks in clarity it makes up for in atmosphere and intrigue. It’s definitely a quick read, and will appeal to fans of sci-fi, dystopian, and end of the world novels.  4/5.

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  1. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read and very hard to describe to people! I saw the movie first and enjoyed it, but it doesn’t really capture the book – I don’t think that would be possible. As a reader, you are thrown into the same kind of situation as the characters – things get less and less easy to process and understand. It is a fine line, like you said, and I think Vandermeer treads it very well most of the time. Some readers will absolutely hate the lack of clarity, but it was such a unique experience that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most readers seem to think the sequel is disappointing, so I haven’t picked it up yet, but I will one day.

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