Here’s the next in my “slightly more demanding sf” series. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern reach trilogy by weird fiction author Jeff VanderMeer. It’s a little bit different than the other ones on the list, as it’s an expedition novel with touches of Lovecraft and Cronenberg.
Brief plot summary
Area X is a mysterious part of what is probably the North American continent. For years it has been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The first expedition reported that Area X was a veritable Garden of Eden. The second expedition ended in mass suicide. Every expedition since has met with an unhappy end. Annihilation follows the members of the twelth expedition (all unnamed): an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist. Narrated by the biologist, the book tracks the twelfth expedition as they make a series of terrifying discoveries about Area X and the previous expeditions.
So how is it?
It’s better in hindsight. I was pretty ambivalent about it while I was reading it, but now that I’ve finished it I find myself looking back on it fairly fondly and wanting to read the other two books in the trilogy (all three were published within months of each other). While I was reading it it felt too much like the modern incarnations of Weird tales: trying too hard and relying too heavily on their literary predecessors.* (The fact that VanderMeer and his wife were editors of Weird tales is probably relevent here) Annihilation has received a huge amount of critical acclaim, which may have biased me somewhat – I was expecting something much more engrossing than what I read.
Annihilation is more of a horror novel than an sf one, really. The expedition is alone in a bizarre land, they know absolutely nothing about each other, and evidence keeps piling up that the situation is far, far worse than it seems. It’s hard to say more without giving away too much. I’ll just say that eventually there’s some body horror in there as well.
I can appreciate that Annihilation is a very well crafted book. The story is full of mystery, and the whole thing is very interesting. The atmosphere is unrelentingly oppressive and its definitely one of the more effective horror novels I’ve read. That being said, it failed to really grab me and I’m not sure why.
Like The world of the end, Annihilation is not nearly as intellectually demanding as some of the other titles in this series. I’ve got this in my “demanding sf” series because it’s demanding in other ways. This is not a plot or action heavy book. It’s Lovecraftian in the traditional sense in that it focuses on rich descriptions of an amoral universe. It also shares Lovecrafts (arguably) pretentious style. While I enjoy the book more now thinking about it than I did when I read it, I think part of that is because the book feels like it was written for the critics and not necessarily for the reader.
Part of the issue may be the amount of steampunk VanderMeer has written, a genre I continue to read because the books look interesting but can never really get in to or enjoy. I’d almost say that reading Annihilation felt like a chore, but VanderMeer throws in enough plot twists in the final third of the book that I did end up wanting to finish it. I have a pretty good idea where the series is going to go after this volume, but I’m interested in reading it nonetheless.
*I may be slightly biased because Weird tales rejected my submission. It’s petty but not a conscious decision. On the other hand, it wasn’t a form rejection so that makes me feel special.
Annihilation is weird for me in that it’s one of those books that I wasn’t really a huge fan of but it is a book I recommend relatively regularly. It’s got a literary quality and there’s no space exploration or wizards so it has more crossover appeal than some other works. People seem to either love or hate this book, so it’s kind of a high risk high reward recommendation. Readers of both highfalutin Literary Fiction and horror are the ideal audience here.
My recommendations specific to this book are
Hyperion / Dan Simmons
The dream cycle of H. P. Lovecraft : dreams of terror and death
Darwinia / Robert Charles Wilson
Battle royale / Koushun Takami ; translated by Nathan Collins – note: I haven’t read this translation. I’ve only read the 2003 Viz translation and parts of the original Japanese text, so I can’t speak to the quality of this translation which appears to be the only one still in print. Ignore the comparisons to The hunger games – they’re two completely different works with one superficial similarity.
Here are the other books in this series
The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla.
Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell.
A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world / Rachel Cantor
The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi
Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe