Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
03 February 2014
Around the time that Jeff VanderMeer was first impinging upon the consciousness of SF&F readers, an entire generation was learning anew the word "quixotic." On the blogging and social networking site LiveJournal, users could (and still can) brand their latest post with a helpful emoticon reflecting their current mood. Many of these moods were as you might expect: happy, sad, annoyed, awake. Others were a little more unusual, but no more inexplicable: crappy, crazy, nauseated, blah. But amidst all these there was that one word, depicted in an icon almost as awkward and unintelligible as the word itself: quixotic, the mood you used when you didn't know how else you felt.
I mention this because my first review of a work by Jeff VanderMeer appeared on LiveJournal, and because many of his earliest efforts—the alarming short fiction collection Secret Life (2004), the incandescent City of Saints and Madmen (2001), the sweetly sickly Veniss Underground (2003)—appeared at a time when an awful lot of fandom was posting reviews there, too. VanderMeer seemed then to us something exciting and fresh, a surreal postmodernist for a generation working on fora elsewhere to define the "new weird." At the time, I wrote of City of Saints and Madmen that "VanderMeer's self-awareness and interest in the textures and deceptive self-confidence of literature and art nevertheless succeeds in making City of Saints and Madmen a heady, amusing and insightful study of the power and palaver of words." That "nevertheless," it turned out, was key.
VanderMeer struck me even then as a writer who "perhaps fall[s] some way into the trap he knowingly seeks to disarm: the fantasy author's inevitable descent into a deathgrip with his or her own creation." That is, there was something—aha, you exclaim, dear reader—quixotic about his craft, about the way in which his work sought to interrogate and deconstruct a genre whilst also writing from within it. Some of his later work, for instance Shriek: An Afterword (2006) or Finch (2009), seemed further to fall into this morass: VanderMeer's city of Ambergris, once a playground in which to cock a snook at the self-regarding invented world of high fantasy, was rapidly coming to resemble one itself.
This might be one reason why in recent years VanderMeer has made his biggest impact with editing: in particular, his work with his wife Ann on Tor's The Weird (2011) was a major contribution to the literature of the fantastic: it is a quite astonishingly broad and consistently excellent compendium of a century's worth of stories that confound, confuse, and creep. What perhaps made this volume—consisting of more than a thousand tightly printed, double-columned pages—so important and timely was summarized by Michael Moorcock in his foreword to the book: "what is left after other definitions are exhausted," he wrote of the Gothic, of science fiction, of fantasy, "is the weird story." In an age of change and flux in which much discussion circles around whither the genre should go next, the Weird story felt like a useful direction to explore, a form which, in the words of the VanderMeers, "strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood."
Certainly this seems to be the path down which VanderMeer's own work is now heading—and, on the evidence of Annihilation, heading with much promise. The first volume in the Southern Reach trilogy, the second and third installments of which will also be published this year, Annihilation is a preternaturally well-poised, unusually intelligent, honest-to-goodnessly discombobulating novel. It is equal parts psychological thriller, science fiction adventure, and dark fantasy horror. It is a literary work which features character development but eschews character, a genre piece which juggles a menagerie of references and tropes in a compelling, addictive, disconcerting pattern. It is a distillation of the Weird; it is, fittingly, also something quite Other. If VanderMeer once tilted at windmills, here he has lanced the wheeling monster with precision.
Annihilation takes place in Area X, a formerly sparsely populated coastal area in a non-specific larger territorial expanse during an imprecise future time period (or, indeed, on an entirely separate world in a galaxy far, far away—setting, like character, is not quite the point here). Since an event some years before, the precise nature of which is unknown even to the expeditions which are sent to the landmass by the agency known as the "Southern Reach," Area X has become host to something—or some things—inexplicable and unknown. Its ecosystems have altered; no one survives there, least of all the explorers sent to understand whatever has happened to this once-pleasant land.
There's a lot implied in this set-up which may or may not be intended, and may or may not be relevant: dystopia, environmental collapse, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic diaspora; Area X is situated in that part of science fiction where the Strugatsky brothers' Zone was situated: in the interstitial spaces between known areas, in the psychological as much as physical space in which novums are generated. Travelers who enter Area X—they must be officially sanctioned, fully screened for suitability, and then hypnotized out of awareness as they make the pilgrimage—experience a radically different reality, an atmosphere as well as artefacts which they cannot possibly explain.
Annihilation joins the twelfth expedition sent to Area X, and is the testimony of one of its four members (a fifth was jettisoned at the final screening stages for reasons unknown). She is a biologist, and the other members of the team are a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. We are never told their names. We come to know them primarily through their skill sets, which in turn prove woefully inadequate to an environment rendered so thoroughly alien in so entirely mysterious a manner.
When the team first encounter a powerful, eerie moaning from the marshes near their basecamp, they are "confident that eventually we would photograph it, document its behavior, tag it, and assign it a place in the taxonomy of living things" (p. 31). This indeed is the very purpose of their mission: though they are allowed "no outside contact, for fear of some irrevocable contamination" (p. 7), they are tasked with experiencing and then explaining Area X to the folks back home. "A biologist is not a detective," our narrator admits, "but I began to think like a detective" (p. 62).
Of course, mysteries in the Weird exist to remind us of our limitations, not, in the manner of crime fiction, to comfort us in our intellectual capacities. Annihilation is carefully paced and intricately structured, and as it proceeds we begin to learn something of the biologist's life before the expedition (including the fact that she was the wife of a medic assigned to the eleventh expedition, which like the others almost entirely disappeared). In this discipline and dovetailing, however, it does not give up its secrets; it simply unfurls them. The biologist herself becomes an enigma, more vital than a cipher but nothing like as accessible as a character. "I have neglected to mention some details," she confesses to us more than once (p. 150)—and, like her, we have to remake our realities on the basis of new data.
In this way, observation becomes a key theme of the work. Each of the members of the expedition, of course, is a trained watcher: the surveyor mapping the land, the anthropologist constructing from clues an understanding of communities. "Observation had always meant more to me than interaction," the biologist admits (p. 110), and in its radical experimentation with character Annihilation encourages us, too, to understand its events as a kind of experiment. The Southern Reach has little understanding of Area X, and gives its expeditions even less: early on, for example, we learn that a device each team member carries features a red warning light which, when lit, must immediately be acted upon; but the team are "not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red" (p. 4). There is a sense that the biologist, collecting samples and measuring the biosphere, is herself a slide under observation. The psychologist leads the team—she understands how to wield the data.
Of course, Area X is home to data which cannot make sense. "My samples told a series of cryptic jokes with punch lines I didn’t understand," the biologist complains (p. 71), and the unpredictable effects of these impossibilities have disastrous consequences. Area X's bizarre physics is most clearly focused in the Tower, a structure bored into the ground near the expedition’s basecamp which everyone else in the team initially chooses to see as a tunnel (how we label what we observe, of course, is key to how we understand it). The Tower does not behave, move, or feel like a normal building, and it houses curious writing as well as, the team assumes, the creature which writes it. "Where lies the strangling fruit," begins the recursive sentence which continues unabated along an apparently endless flight of stairs, "that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that . . ." (p. 46).
The sense in the Tower of words which seem like they should make sense and yet do not is an embodiment of Area X, and Annihilation, as a whole. The biologist becomes obsessed with the writing and its reason for being, but her intimate relation to the eleventh expedition adds a destabilizing personal aspect to her observations. "People trivialize or simplify data for so many reasons," she reflects at one point (p. 72), but the reader of Annihilation wonders if these can't all be boiled down to the simple desire to understand, to encapsulate, to site oneself securely in an inhospitable landscape. "I had gotten sidetracked, like I always did, because I melted into my surroundings, could not remain separate from, apart from, objectivity a foreign land to me" (p. 173). This, of course, is the inescapable situation of each of us.
In this way, Annihilation becomes a Weird fiction not so much about the weirdness itself—although it is both gloriously creepy and improbably unnerving—as the way in which humans experience or gloss it. It is a novel about the Weird as much as it is a novel of the Weird. It is a form of criticism.
Certainly, VanderMeer makes more references than a single reviewer might hope to catalog. The expedition is instructed not to look back when they cross the border into Area X, but the biologist does, evoking Lot’s wife (what is weirder than becoming a pillar of salt?); the journal form, so beloved of writers such as William Hope Hodgson in House on the Borderland (1908), serves a similar function both of immediacy and valency here; there is a lighthouse, as there was in the weird TV show Haven, itself based on a Stephen King novel; and in the creature at the bottom of the Tower, and indeed in the sense of a world transformed by an unknown invasion, Annihilation of course recalls consciously the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. But each of these references feels both organic and almost incidental, since Annihilation is so thoroughly its own statement—not just in dialogue with or in debt to the Weird, but actively assessing it, adapting it, shaping it.
There is a sense that this slim novel can only achieve all it does because VanderMeer has the knowledge and facility gleaned from the reading necessary to compile an 800,000-word anthology. Annihilation is a distillation of a literature which defies distillation. I have sought to avoid plot summaries or spoilers, because the manner in which VanderMeer builds his tale is of real importance to its effect and achievement; but I hope that in my quotations I've emphasized something of the supple, allusive elegance of his prose here. Annihilation is a large work which looks slight and reads swift. That, too, is the sign of a writer in complete command of his material.
"We all live in a kind of continuous dream. . . . When we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we've taken as reality" (p. 188). These words of the biologist describe the function of the Weird—and the source of the dread which Area X inspires in the Southern Reach. It also makes an argument for Annihilation, a novel which is both exciting adventure and sophisticated treatise, but which is primarily a book about seeing differently. There is, in a book which is also firm about the difficulty of perception, a word for retaining hope in our ability (and genre's, and indeed good old Jeff VanderMeer's) to shift perspective.