For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.
Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.
Here, all will discover what it truly means to face the unknown. In Area X, they must adapt or die.
The first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation is difficult to discuss, or even simply describe; part slow, creeping horror of the kind that films like Alien draw on (without the monster!), part science fictional investigation of a new world a la a much darker, more disturbing Star Trek, part meditation on relationships that wouldn’t feel out of place in the literary fiction shelves, VanderMeer’s slim novel packs more in than many trilogies six times its length.
The nameless protagonist, the biologist, is an unreliable narrator who highlights this by telling the reader, at multiple points in the text, that she is concealing things from them in order to raise her credibility; indeed, having only recently read The Gospel of Loki, I’m impressed by the extent to which a narrator telling the reader they are unreliable can permeate the whole text with a sense of unreliability. The final few pages of the novel only enhances and increases this unreliability, casting everything that has come before in a new light, demanding to be entirely reconceptualised; one suspects that as each instalment in the trilogy comes out, the reader will have to do this again and again.
It is not only the narrator whom the reader must distrust; the very blurb misleads one as to the nature of the novel and the events within, which rapidly take a turn for the Weird. VanderMeer has long dabbled in this territory – and his fungus-obsession of books of yore returns here – but Annihilation is his strongest foray into the territory yet, provoking many questions from the reader and refusing to answer any of them; even discounting the unreliability of the narrative, the book’s very structure is designed to avoid closing off possibilities in the reader’s mind, and to allow the audience to draw – and constantly redraw – their own conclusions as to events. Throughout, VanderMeer also cultivates an increasing sense of creeping dread; the atmosphere of the novel is very intense and thick with a sense of anticipation, as if each page turned is bringing one closer to some awful revelation or event.
The exploration of Area X in Annihilation rapidly discovers several anomalies, and the four members of the expedition are rapidly differentiated; despite only seeing them from the perspective of the biologist, the surveyor, linguist and psychiatrist are each given their own personality and course of action, and despite seeming to be defined only by their roles, in fact prove to be barely defined by them at all. The lack of names allows a certain degree of anonymous individuality that creates incredible characterisation, especially of the biologist as we learn more about her: her past, her motivations, her inner life, but never her name. The device of anonymity works to create individuality far better than any names could have.
The rest of the Southern Reach Trilogy is due out over the next 6 months, and judging by Annihilation, that can only be a good thing; whether they answer the questions raised in this slim volume or simply build ever-stranger, ever-more-suspenseful layers on top of it, Area X is somewhere I am looking forward to returning to.