Unsettling and atmospheric, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer sets a mysterious scene for the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a sparse, short but self-contained story set in the near future, about an expedition into a quarantined zone of abandoned coastline where something ‘other’ has established itself. All previous investigations have ended badly. The teams simply don’t come back. Or they come back and die. Or they come back… different. Things don’t exactly go swimmingly this time, either.
There’s precious little exposition or traditional story-telling here and we’re deliberately distanced from the expedition team. They take no technology with them and have no contact with the outside world once they’ve breached the border of Area X. They can’t even remember how they crossed into Area X, and we’re only informed by implication about the awfulness of that transition. We don’t learn their names – people are defined by their roles, the Geologist or the Psychologist – and as the story is told from the perspective of just one of them, the Biologist, we only understand her increasingly warped point of view.
And what a strange perspective it is: the creepy abandoned camp, the oppressive tower with its nightmare subterranean staircase, the weird writing on the walls, the paranoia and the conflicts, the… things in the depths. It’s like Lovecraft meets Lost.
I was also distinctly reminded of the mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke; there’s echoes of the mysterious ‘croatoan’ message in the bizarre writing which the expedition team find filling the walls of the tower. But VanderMeer has built a much bigger universe than one which simply reflects old legends. In Annihilation he also examines the isolation of the individual and the gulf which can exist between even a committed couple – one which is only bridged by the most extremes circumstances which they separately encounter in the Southern Reach.
The atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty is heightened by the nature of the expedition itself: not only are the team-members strangers, but they’ve been conditioned with pre-planned hypnotic suggestions to give the psychologist some kind of control over them. That’s where the title comes from; but the trigger-word ‘annihilation’ was only supposed to be used in the most extreme circumstances…
This isn’t just spooky speculative fantasy: it’s all about the failure to engage. The narrator endures an instant of mismatched communication with the ‘other’… after a lifetime of failing to communicate with the people around her. It’s chilling, in many ways.
If you expect your stories to finish with a definitive conclusion and some firm answers, then you won’t find Annihilation to be a fulfilling read. It opens the door to unsettling oddness, intentional ambiguity and a mass of unanswered questions. What happened to all the earlier expeditions? What’s going on with the dolphins which swim up-river and observe with an uncannily human eye? What makes the awful moaning noise in the undergrowth, and what does all the weird writing mean? I haven’t got the foggiest.
The writing is precise and accomplished – at the end I was pretty sure I’d experienced exactly what the author intended, and those feelings were far from pleasant. However it had the right effect. I’m hooked. Next episode, please…
Review by Rowena Hoseason
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is available in print and as an ebook from Amazon