Teams of explorers are sent into Area X. They find that the nature there is strange. The purple thistles seem unnaturally eager. The sky is too full of birds; the long grass is teeming with little red grasshoppers. Everything is too alive. The explorers feel watched by things—plants, the sky—that can’t actually watch; in a paranoid moment, one of them suggests that all of Area X could be camouflage for a single, diffuse living process or thing … In today’s literary landscape, it’s natural for the Southern Reach books to find themselves grouped together with the broadly ecological, post-apocalyptic stories that are now in vogue. But there’s not much that’s post-apocalyptic about VanderMeer’s novels. They’re not interested in how life ends, but in how it changes, and they are fascinated by the question of persistence through change.
Annihilation is successfully creepy, an old-style gothic horror novel set in a not-too-distant future. The best bits turn your mind inside out … Like the expeditions that preceded them, this group does not fare well. ‘We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity,’ the biologist says. ‘We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.’ And as in a classic work of horror, the ‘monster’ they find inside the tower-tunnel is not even as terrifying as the biologist’s discovery that almost everything she had been told about Area X was fundamentally untrue.
No spoiler alert is needed because we know the narrator escapes to tell the tale, which is ponderously plotted, often abstract in style and not very scary, possibly because Annihilation is the first book of a projected trilogy but probably because the novel is really about itself and its genre … Details from the biologist’s past — she was a loner who would rather observe a tide pool than participate in her marriage — fill out the metafictional allegory, but without convincingly establishing the biologist’s motivations for her risky behavior, motivations that might have made Annihilation not just intriguing but affecting.
Area X is magic in the same way Lovecraft's Rhode Island was magic — which is to say, inhabited by impossible things beyond human description. At the same time, it is haunted (which is an entirely different thing) by the previous expeditions and the things they left behind — the tents and supplies, the curiously incomplete maps, the bullet holes, the bloodstains. And VanderMeer is brave in the telling of his story — of the Biologist's story — because he attempts to explain in full almost none of it … And yet, the ending is satisfying. It is one of those rare endings that is, all at the same time, ambiguous, terrifically unfinished, and the only possible ending that the story could have had.
...a strikingly effective chiller with a classically Lovecraftian premise. This swiftly paced tale follows the members of Southern Reach’s 12th expedition as they investigate Area X. However, whereas a Lovecraftian story would exclaim in horror at a challenges to humanity’s place in the universe, Annihilation. asks whether ‘the human’ is a stable category to begin with … As the Southern Reach’s use of hypnotic keywords may indicate, Annihilation, like the other novels in the trilogy, is preoccupied with the way that external environments and beings manipulate our internal selves. Language is held up to particular scrutiny. Characters are infected by words; stories are deployed as weapons; phrases derail characters’ ability to perceive objective reality. Cleverly, VanderMeer turns the text against the reader at times, alerting us to the fact that we, too, are being manipulated with language.
Annihilation, in which the educated and analytical similarly meets up with the inhuman, is a clear triumph for VanderMeer, who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal … The apparent tragedy and freakish ecology of Area X's blight are quite fascinating, and the solitary voice of its post-humanist narrator is both deeply flawed and deeply trustworthy — a difficult and excellent balance in a novel whose world is built seamlessly and whose symbols are rich and dark.
Into this place come the biologist and her colleagues: a surveyor, a linguist, and a psychologist. They are all women. And that is all. Sensitive readers will already have begun to feel their fingers prised loose from the edge of the swimming pool, when it turns out these explorers are unable to divulge their names. ‘Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X’ … You enter Area X with them, thinking the uncanny must lurk in some particular spot. The lighthouse? The reed beds? The ‘tower’? Very quickly you spot your mistake, as a subtle, well-engineered wrongness turns up in every character, every deed, every observation until, at last, you find yourself afraid to turn the page.
Gradually, the narrator realizes she herself has been contaminated by spores inhaled as she examined a mosslike growth that spelled out gloomy poetry on the walls of a living shaft plunging deep into the earth. The biologist’s persistence in calling this shaft a tower, despite the fact that it rises only 8 inches above the ground, is one way VanderMeer shows the extent of her disorientation: up is down, in (toward the heart of the mystery) is out — toward the border between Area X and normalcy … VanderMeer ups the book’s eeriness quotient with the smoothest of skill, the subtlest of grace. His prose makes the horrific beautiful.
What’s this woman’s name? We don’t know—the Southern Reach wants the members of the all-female expedition to know each other only by their functions: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and our hero the biologist. The idea is that the less they know about each other, they less likely they are to turn on each other under the influence of Area X … As the pristine wilderness of Area X transforms humans into bizarre, nearly unperceivable creatures, as it threatens to leap beyond its bounds and swallow the outside world, a second, simultaneous apocalypse is also happening: the end of human identity.
A biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist venture into Area X. Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Well halt that thought, because Annihilation is no laughing matter. On the contrary: Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since Finch is a nightmarish narrative about the fungus among us which trades in terror and tension rather than simple titters. It’s the award-winning author’s most accessible text yet… though there’s a very real chance the Southern Reach series will leave you with weird dreams for years.
Using evocative descriptions of the biologist's outer and inner worlds, masterful psychological insight, and intellectual observations both profound and disturbing—calling Lovecraft to mind and Borges—VanderMeer unfolds a tale as satisfying as it is richly imagined.
VanderMeer is an expert fearmonger, but his strongest suit, what makes his novel a standout, is his depiction of the biologist. Like any scientist, she has an overriding need to classify, to know. This has been her lifelong passion … Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.