Before I began reading Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, I showed it to my best friend, a biologist who teachers neurobiology and evolution to college students, suggesting she might like to read it before it goes back to the library. She read the back cover and remarked that there is already an “Area X” in the world, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, that 2.4 mile wide and 155 mile long unintentional nature reserve along the 38th parallel. The DMZ has been left untouched by humanity since 1953, nature reclaiming land that had been farmed and cultivated for thousands of years.
The “Area X” in Annihilation is only half that old and the reminder that there is such a place in our real world added a frisson of the uncanny to the deeply weird Annihilation that has me eager to read the next in the series as soon as possible. What we know about Area X is very little, “it is near a military base where something went terribly wrong, and it is, somehow, growing.”
But it is weird, weird as defined by H.P. Lovecraft in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” As Lovecraft put it, “Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.” And in Annihilation, mood is everything. The mood of Annihilation because a blend of curiosity and foreboding from the outset—and because the biologist’s “sole gift or talent was that places could impress themselves upon me, and I could become a part of them with ease.”, she is attuned to the threats, the changes, the moods of this environment.
Annihilation is the narrative of the biologist who along with the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist, formed the 12th Expedition into Area X. There was supposed to be a linguist, but she stayed behind. All are women, all are also equipped only with old equipment, nothing newer than the technology that was current when Area X was closed. The fates of the previous eleven expeditions have not been positive and little is known about their findings. We soon learn, though, that the biologist’s husband was a member of the 11th Expedition and returned a changed man, as though there were a veil between him and his old self. He died soon after of cancer, as did all the other members of his expedition. Part of the biologist’s motive in coming to Area X is discover what happened to him there or perhaps, to lose herself as he did.
Southern Reach, the expedition organization that prepares, trains and equips them, maintains a rigid secrecy and discipline—not even allowing expedition members to use each other’s names. This is part of the protocol, to avoid forming bonds that might deflect them from their mission of observing the environment. They have areas to explore, a rudimentary map and basic tools and equipment and by the end of the first day, they know they have been misled and misinformed as there is a structure leading down into the earth – a tunnel, or as the biologist perceives it, a tower going downward.
Distrust and division breaks the team down and before long, the biologist is on her own, continuing to explore this familiar, yet alien, landscape. The biologist, an expert in transitional landscapes, is uniquely qualified to observe what seems to be her own transition. The horror is real, but it is unclear where and how it manifests. And, in contrast to Lovecraft, the horror may not be an end; it may be a beginning. Perhaps the transition is turning into something good.
I have the impulse to tell you everything because the book is just that exciting, different, weird and completely new. I am resisting in hopes that you pick up this short, wee book—just over 190 pages—and lose yourself in Area X with the biologist as she searches for answers not just to Area X, but also to her husband.
The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer