Annihilation was my first foray into the new weird genre and man, it was a deep end if there is one. The premise is basic enough: There is a mysterious, untouched coastline somewhere in the US that, years ago, had suddenly and inexplicably become host to a bizarre new ecosystem. It is quarantined and referred to as Area X by the Southern Reach, a secretive government agency. All the prior expeditions sent into Area X resulted in disasters – the explorers committed mass suicide, killed each other, developed fatal cancers. The twelfth expedition consists of four women – a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist (the main character). The biologist is an intriguing character; she’s described as being very distant from others, most comfortable when analysing microorganisms on the coast of Ireland, far away from human contact. She is remarkedly pragmatic when confronted with the unknown and comes off as a little alien herself:
“A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people, I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.”
VanderMeer doesn’t ease the reader in but instead starts to throw questions into the air almost immediately. After less than 24 hours the team is disagreeing about basic discoveries. Is this tunnel going underground we found important? Is it a tunnel or a shaft? Or a tunnel? Should we continue on to lighthouse stay here? Why is the tunnel not on the map?
The biologist soon realises that the secret government agency has ulterior motives (shocker!) and that their leader, the psychologist has her own goals. It soon becomes clear that the mission is a farce – equipment is all broken or anachronistic, their extensive astronaut-like training is irrelevant and they are not even fully in control of themselves.
Everything VanderMeer does is carefully added to keep everything bizarre – without names and with their fields of expertise made irrelevant almost instantly after entering Area X, the team is defined only by their bare emotions (the surveyor is aggressive, the psychologist is peculiar, the biologist is curious, the anthropologist is anxious). The expedition team are made to bring outdated technology They are told this to help to keep outside influences out but is it really? Hypnosis stops the team leaving and soon the reader comes to realise maybe the experiment isn’t to see what Area X is but to see how the women react when immersed in bizarre stimuli.
I’ve mentioned hypnosis a few times and I think that its inclusion is really the only real weakness in the novel. VanderMeer relies on the concept of hypnosis quite strongly and in this weird, fantastical environment it’s the almost mind control powers that come off as least believable. Characters forget entire days due to it, they fall into comatose positions, their minds easily malleable from just a single word. I don’t know if hypnosis is actually that powerful in real life but it ruined the immersion just for a moment.
When I first picked up Annihilation I was mildly surprised at how short it was. But the length works in its favour; it doesn’t let up for a moment. The story is constantly being pushed forward, there’s no time to ponder each new revelation as another is thrown at the reader. VanderMeer could have easily filled it out to 400 pages by pausing the story and including backstory on the biologist, on Area X or starting it earlier in the timeline. But he chooses not to. He chooses to start as they enter the area and gives little to no explanations about what is going on. The reader is at an equal loss for knowledge as the biologist – or even more so considering she herself is such an enigma.
It constantly keeps the reader on their toes with a consistently eerie mood throughout. Every page is full of mystery – cryptic writing on the walls of the tunnel with run on sentences that rival dickens, a deep voice coming from somewhere in the swamp, plants that appear to contain human matter within them. I was never really able to feel relaxed throughout but like the biologist who just keeps trucking through, what else can she do, I just keep reading – both of us expecting that eventually everything will be explained.
But that’s the crux of the book. There are few answers. If you’re the type of reader who likes their mysteries explained by the end Sherlock Holmes style, you’re going to be unsatisfied with this. That doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad ending, it’s not, it’s excellent. It’s ambiguous, open to interpretation, just explained enough (that is to say, barely at all) and almost forcing me to start its sequel, Authority.