The novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. It won the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel. This book is strikingly good. It is original, has compelling characters and themes, is well written, is imbued with atmosphere and is at times genuinely scary.
The plot revolves around a fictional part of Florida known as Area X. Thirty years before the main events in the novel, some kind of event took place here. Though officially it was designated an environmental catastrophe and placed off limits to the public, it becomes clear that something much odder, bizarre and profound happened and continues to manifest itself in this area. Among many strange phenomena, an invisible barrier surrounds the zone. All who cross the barrier disappear. There is only a single “breach” that allows exploration teams to enter or exit. Over the years, multiple teams have entered the zone. Many met with various calamities, including the suicides of all team members, murderous insanity, mental degradation, team members returning with terminal cancer, etc. “Southern Reach” is the secret and possibly malevolent government agency that is investigating the phenomenon.
This novel centers on the latest expedition, which is comprised of four women. The team members are known only by their titles. The story is told in the first person by the team member known only as the Biologist.
After the team enters the zone, all sorts of bizarre occurrences begin to happen. Personality changes of the team members begin to manifest themselves, and strange structures with even stranger interiors and beings are discovered, just to name just a few plot developments.
Almost everything about this novel is uncanny. It is one of the most atmospheric books that I have ever read. The closest comparison that I can make is to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The events, even by science fiction and horror standards, are unusual but believable. The prose consists of matter-of-fact descriptions that, when added together, paradoxically give the book a dreamlike feel. The feeling is that of a disquieting dream that is, at any moment, about to cross into a nightmare.
Little is revealed about the characters or situation at the novel’s start, but much is slowly divulged over the course of the narrative. There are many surprises and revelations along the way. Through flashbacks and background information, the Biologist is revealed as a complex and very well drawn out character. She is a loner who has trouble in relationships and social situations. I could devote an entire post to her.
I read some interviews with VanderMeer that assisted me in figuring out some underlying themes here. There is a strong pro-environmental message, and this book is in part a warning about the dangers of climate change. This gets worked into the plot in a very strange way.
There is also a great deal of complex philosophy at play here. The book seems to be questioning many assumptions and thought systems that people cling to. Furthermore, it seems to be saying that many of these belief systems are imposed by outside agencies. It seems to highlight the fact that much of what we accept as truth is illusionary.
This is illustrated in the passage below. In one of the book’s many flashbacks, the Biologist is describing her husband’s experience with nightmares.
"Part of my husband’s life had been defined by nightmares he’d had as a child. These debilitating experiences had sent him to a psychiatrist. They involved a house and a basement and the awful crimes that had occurred there. But the psychiatrist had ruled out suppressed memory, and he was left at the end with just trying to draw the poison by keeping a diary about them. Then, as an adult at university, a few months before he’d joined the navy, he had gone to a classic film festival … and there, up on the big screen, my future husband had seen his nightmares acted out. It was only then that he realized the television set must have been left on at some point when he was only a couple of years old, with that horror movie playing. The splinter in his mind, never fully dislodged, disintegrated into nothing. He said that was the moment he knew he was free, that it was from then on that he left behind the shadows of his childhood … because it had all been an illusion, a fake, a forgery, a scrawling across his mind that had falsely made him go in one direction when he had been meant to go in another. "
It turns out that what everyone assumed was the cause of these bad dreams was incorrect, and an entire model was built around the fallacy. When this fallacy was removed, it led to freedom and relief.
There are also allusions to the fact that knowledge and belief systems are often so complex that they are unknowable. No matter how we try, we really cannot understand the nature of certain aspects of reality.
At one point of the narrative, this is illustrated in the following allegorical passage. The Biologist comes across a strange stash of journals left by hundreds of members of previous expeditions (using technology like cell phones or digital cameras in Area X has disastrous effects so everything is written down in old fashioned journals). She initially tries to piece together the mysteries of the area but soon finds it imposable,
"At a certain point, I discovered I was so overwhelmed I could not continue, could not even go through the motions. It was too much data, served up in too anecdotal a form. I could search those pages for years and perhaps never uncover the right secrets, while caught in a loop of wondering how long this place had existed, who had first left their journals here, why others had followed suit until it had become as inexorable as a long-ingrained ritual. By what impulse, what shared fatalism? All I really thought I knew was that the journals from certain expeditions and certain individual expedition members were missing, that the record was incomplete."
In addition to there being missing journals, it is described in other passages how many of the journals are rotted, insect eaten, water damaged, etc.
It seems that the above is symbolic of complex truths that people try to grapple with and understand. The author may be saying that we are confronted with a barrage of what is random information in no discernable order. Relevant information is often missed, missing and inaccessible. The emotional despair in such quests for knowledge seems overwhelming.
There are so many more allusions to the elusiveness of truth and the illusions that people cling to in the narrative throughout this novel. For instance, the Biologist discovers that the team members have been hypnotized and that they have had all sorts of false beliefs implanted in their minds.
I should emphasize that my above summary is an oversimplification of the philosophy that the author is attempting to explore. I do believe that VanderMeer is on to something and that people often do accept invalid belief systems and build entire worlds around them. Furthermore, truth often is elusive, and we live in a really complicated universe where people, history, culture, science, etc. often do not yield easy answers. With that, I believe that people can formulate valid belief systems as well as discover scientific truths. Thus, I would not go as far as VanderMeer.
This is a fantastic novel. It is incredibly atmospheric and genuinely spooky. It is gripping and left me enthralled wanting to discover the secrets of Area X. The Biologist is an interesting, imperfect and well-crafted charter. The themes are intricate and thought provoking. I highly recommend this book to folks who are interested in science fiction as well as psychological horror. I will be beginning the next book in the series and will likely read all three back to back.