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.
Excellent review as ever, Brian. I've heard great things about this trilogy, and your commentary confirms its merits. It sounds full of interesting ideas.
one reason that I choose to read this is that I heard that it was a book based upon ideas.
Excellent review of what seems to be a quite fascinating SF read. While I have not heard much about this the importance of ideas is appealing to me. It reminds me a little of the Russian SF novel Roadside Picnic.
Wow! This kind of book is not normally on my menu, but you've persuaded me to challenge my tastes with you excellent review/posting. BTW, I've moved my blogging activities to Beyond Walden Pond, and -- of course -- you're invited to visit and comment often.
I was going to ask how soon you planned on reading the rest of the trilogy but you answered that. I'm guessing then that the other two are available. When was tis first published?
Excellent review, as usual! This book seems even more pertinent in this age of immediate, immense information. I will keep this book (and trilogy) in mind. It does sound like a book of complex ideas.
Hi James - I decided to read some newer science fiction. In science fiction circles VanderMeer is one of the more popular contemporary writers.
Thanks R.T. - I myself have been reading mostly classics lately.
I will be headed over to your new blog.
Hi Guy - All the books were published in 2014.
Hi Suko - I tend to like books that have underlying ideas. This one is indeed very relevant to our times.
I like the environmental and philosophical themes of this book.
The premise sounds an awful lot like that of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. But I would imagine that setting that in Florida would create all kinds of wacky complications.
Loving the cover which I find simple and yet incredibly striking.
Reading your review the same thoughts went through my mind as they did with several others. Like RT perhaps not my normal kind of read but given the issues I think I'd find this interesting.
Hi Brian. Excellent review.
That's so interesting about truth and what truth might actually be. It is true that the capacity for self-deception is profound.
I think of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 60s. One of the people in that movement later explained the madness as being brainwashed.
Nevertheless, there is objective truth or people wouldn't bother seeking facts scientifically. And we all look both ways before crossing the street.
I don't know if I agree that truth is elusive. I think some things are very clearly revealed but it is another thing to accept or reject truth. Of course not all things are known but I think enough is.
After all the truth is written on the minds and hearts of all men.
Thanks for a good review.
These books made a big splash when they came out and I have yet to get around to reading them, they kind of slipped off my radar. Thanks for the reminder!
Hi Harvee - The themes are very relevant to today's world.
Hi Scott - I had barely heard of Roadside Picnic . I Googled it. The book does look similar to this in some ways. I also looks very good,
Hi Tracy 0- Not inly are the themes interesting, but this is real page turner.
Hi Sharon - i absolutely agree that is an objective truth out there. However, even when obvious to some, it seems elusive to others;
Hi Stefanie - These books did get a lot of attention, to some extent, I think that they still are.
Outstanding review as usual, Brian!
This is definitely a thought-provoking book, but what you have described of the plot is very scary and downright disturbing, not to mention depressing. Besides, you've referenced Lovecraft, an author I have no intention of ever reading, as I totally detest -- and fear -- the horror genre.
I did like the quote about the Biologist's husband going to a psychiatrist to deal with his nightmares. His fear of them came from an erroneous belief. Once he had found out the truth, he was free to put his childhood experience in the past. How interesting! This really makes me wonder just how much of what we perceive as "reality" is REALLY reality, and not simply a construct of our minds. Well, it's true that no two people see the world in exactly the same way. However, we do have a sort of overall "reality consensus". This is a fascinating topic, just as much as the topic of free will, which I included in my comment on your Pinker review -- just how FREE are we, actually?
This quote also highlights the fact that people have to be VERY careful what they allow their children to see, especially taking care that the kids can't access something too disturbing for them accidentally. Young minds are very impressionable, and things like what happened to this character can indeed affect a person for life.
I would have been more than happy to read a book by this author dealing with the same philosophical points he raises in this novel, but in a nonfiction format. As he decided to use fiction, and horror fiction at that (I was initially interested by the SF aspect, until I found out that horror was also part of this novel), I am therefore not going to go anywhere near this book!
Years ago, I made the HUGE mistake of reading "The Exorcist". Mind you, I never saw the movie. But, just from reading the book, I couldn't sleep well for an ENTIRE week. And I still remember those frightening Edgar Allan Poe stories I was assigned to read in high school....shudders!
Thanks for for your well-written thoughts!! :)
Hi Maria - Though there is no real graphic horror in this book, it is really chilling and ominous so I think that it could disturb you. I understand this as certain books have really bothered me.
Some of the books that I mention in the above post, I wish that I never read.
The philosophical implications of this one are really interesting. As Steven Pinker points out, our basic grasp of reality is generally accurate, otherwise we would not survive long in our very dangerous Universe. With that, as se know, folks have all sorts of faulty belief systems.
Thanks for bringing this (interesting sounding) book to my attention. I read hardly any SF or fantasy any more, but my husband really enjoys it. I'm going to bring this novel home for him and see what he thinks!
It sounds nice and creepy. A little like Stephen King's The Dome but different! I think my husband might dig this so I've just put it on hold at our library. Thanks for review.
Hi Sarah - there was a time when almost all my fiction reading was science fiction. I occasionally read it now. I wanted to read something contemporary so I read this.
Hi Susan - I never read Steven King;s Dome. I just read a summery. It sounds very good but diffrerent in many ways from this book.
Hi Brian, I have been seeing this book's cover often, and never read about it. I am so glad you wrote this fantastic review. I am surely going to pick this up. I have been talking to a lot of bloggers about what I can read during my long flight from Chennai to Dallas. Looks like this will work out for me. Also, I love atmospheric novels.
And, I have just read a couple of stories about HP Lovecraft. If I have to start, where should I?
Thank you, Brian. :)
Hi Deepika- This book is a page turner and I think that it would be perfect for your flight.
Perhaps my favorite Lovecraft story is At The Mountains Of Madness. It actually reminds me of this book in some ways. It is hard to go wrong with Lovecraft stories. The Dunwich Horror, The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Call of Cthulu are very worthy reads. Most of his tales take place in the same Universe and are part of "Cthulhu Mythos".
What a great review, Brian. I've heard of this book but never knew exactly what it was about. This sounds like the perfect book for me, although a bit depressing. I always find novels who hit close to reality to be depressing.
I wonder if the mystery will be revealed at the end of book 3. Looking forward to the next review.
Hi Delia - I think that you would like this work. I would love to know what you thing of it if you did.
I will be posting commentary on the sequels shortly.
This sounds like just the type of book I enjoy reading. It'll go right on my wishlist!
Hi Brian, only recently discovered your blog. Great review - I loved these books and especially loved the mash-up feel of horror/SF/Eco-thriller in the first. Although the first is probably the strongest of the three, I hope you go on to read the other two, it'll be interesting to see what you make of them.
Hi Rachel - I think that you would like this. I would love to know what you think if you read them.
Hi Annbel - Thanks for the good word and thanks for stopping by.
I am a little behind on my posting and I have already completed the series. I agree that this book is the best of the trilogy. I will have commentary up on those shortly.
As always a great review Brian. I would have walked past this in the store for sure, after reading your thoughts I think I could perhaps get on with this one. Certainly worth a wee nosey anyways.
Thank you for writing about this book. I hadn't heard about it, and it sounds fascinating. The Biologist is a character I already want to know more about. And what an interesting question about valid belief systems - for one thing, judging and defining what is "valid."
Hi Hila - The Biologist is really a great character. We see her return in the third book.
The themes here really are universal. Thus I think that this book can be enjoyed by folks who usually do not read this genre.
Annihilation sounds good and the idea of an Area X does sound creepy. That the story is told by The Biologist makes it even creepier. Interesting about her husbands nightmares being because of the tv set.
So true about the relevant information as opposed to just random information being taking in.
Great post as always.
Hi Naida - Creepy is such a good adjective to describe this book.
It is indeed difficult to pull the relevant information out from the random.
What a great review, Brian. I really want to read this now. I've had it in my hands many times but couldn't make up my mind. I particularly love that it's atmospheric.
Thanks Caroline. I would love to know what you though this book if you read it.
This is definitely outside of my comfort zone but it looks intriguing (plus, I grew up in Florida). I'm a big fan of atmospheric novels and will check this out thanks to you.
Thanks for stopping by Allison.
Though I used to read a lot of science fiction I used to read more. I also do not read a lot of contemporary books. Thus, this work was a little bit out of my comfort zone. I am glad that I read it.
Omg yes the biologist! This one was such a weird, wonderful read! I haven read the sequels yet, so I shied away from reading your more recent posts, but I love this review, it just reminds me how much I liked the book and that I should just get on with reading the others :)
Hi Bina - I am glad to hear that you like this book too.
I will just say that if I felt the other books were good, but not as good as this one.
I would love to know what you think if you read the other books.
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