REVIEW: Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1)
CONCLUSION I don’t know if it met my expectations, but I do know I stayed up past 1:00am on a school night to finish it.
Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his eco-thriller Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation, came to me much-heralded by critics and friends. It won the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel, which one of my professors called “the sci-fi Pulitzer.” I was somewhat quizzical about whether or not the book would meet my expectations after all the hype.
Now, having read it, I don’t know if it met my expectations, but I do know I became so glued to the pages that I stayed up past 1:00am on a school night to finish it. The narrative opens with four women, known only by their roles as the biologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist. They constitute the most recent mission sent by the mysterious organization known as the Southern Reach into Area X, a section of unpopulated, overgrown terrain encompassing forest, marshland, and coastal region. The nature of Area X’s origin remains vague in this first volume; the characters were anaesthetized when they passed the barrier. The psychologist has been appointed the leader of the group, periodically giving planting hypnotic suggestions. All four are required to maintain journals during the expedition, and Annihilation is told from the point of view of the biologist’s journal.
Fascination begins building when the four decide to enter a tunnel/inverted tower that leads into the bowels of the earth. The biologist discovers writing along the walls of the downward tower, which in turn is discovered to be made of fungus. From there, layers emerge: the script spells out doomsday proclamations, the sample of the fungus turns out to resemble human brain tissue when the biologist analyzes it, the biologist experiences a sensation of “brightness” after inhaling fungal spores, the tunnel may actually be the gaping mouth of some large organism, and the anthropologist disappears in the night.
However, the book’s end does not fully end up under the weight of its mysteries. The biologist’s final encounter with “the crawler,” who writes the script in the tower, proves confusing and resolves nothing. Although two books remain in the trilogy, I struggled to see this volume as a single complete unit, and wondered if VanderMeer’s best move might have been to combine the three into a single, large book. I felt slightly strung along.
I do note that by the end, I could see a glint of what critics so lauded in this bastion of the emerging “cli-fi” genre. By the end, the biologist’s allegiance shifts from the Southern Reach to Area X itself. The ecosystem brewing on the other side of the barrier from humanity may not be apocalyptic after all, but preferable to civilization as the biologist knows it.