Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – the good sort of wtf

Posted: February 16, 2015 in reading
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It’s not often that I get to the end of a book and don’t know what to think or feel. Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, achieves that, in a good way.

Annihilation is a tricky book to describe. It’s probably fantasy, maybe horror, with what looks like a contemporary setting. Narratively, it’s the story of an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a part of the world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. Sent to explore the area, the expedition has its own strange rules meant to combat the madness of Area X. Except those rules are themselves disorienting and dehumanising.

The story is told through the unreliable narrative of the expedition’s nameless biologist, and portrays her response to the bewildering nature of Area X and the disintegration of the people around her. Or possibly her descent into madness. Or possibly both. It’s hard to tell. And along the way, she gets to grips with her own identity and sense of purpose.

I’m told that H P Lovecraft’s horror writing created stories in which even smart people could convincingly be over-whelmed and destroyed, because the forces arrayed against them were just too much for anyone to cope with. That’s how Annihilation feels. The biologist is smart, but from the outset Area X is so strange that there’s a real tension around whether she can survive the expedition, and how it will affect her.

If you watched any of the TV show Lost, you’ll probably remember hitting a point where you realised that the island just didn’t make sense, and probably never would. Annihilation is like that, except that it feels like the lack of coherence is a deliberate ploy by the author, not the result of a TV production throwing madness at the screen and praying that it would make sense.

To quote a speech from one of my favourite films (and please excuse the f-bombs), feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a sane response to a fucked up situation. That’s what this book portrays, and it evokes it incredibly well.

Annihilation isn’t hard work in the sense of being dense or massively long. But its strange natures requires a willingness to let go of your assumptions about how a story will pan out and how a fantastical world will be presented. It’s fascinating. It’s dark. It’s something I want more of, and I don’t even know why. If you like weird things, then give it a go.

  1. That one’s on my list for whenever I manage to extract myself from the Foreigner universe. (Which could take a few months, yeesh.)

    • This one at least shouldn’t take months – I find it harder to judge length with e-books, but it didn’t feel like a long read, in a good way.

      • We have the books where I work, and they’re quite short, so maybe I can fit them in between series.

        • It’s never occurred to me before just what a great place a library would be to work. Short of something to read on your lunch break? Not a problem. After something to read that evening? A world of choice. And you get to see what’s new and interesting.

          I’m not quite jealous, given I now write for a living, but it’s up there in the great jobs to have.

          • Well, 90% of it is customer service these days, but I do have no lack of selection when I’m ready to read something new. And I did just put ten graphic novels on hold…

            (Everybody, go to your library! It’s free! And if you like e-books, the library can come to you!)

            Ahem. Advocacy moment over. 😀

            • What graphic novels are you reading? I’m currently working my way through Transmetropolitan for the first time in years, and it is so good, in a dark, angry, funny way.

            • I love Transmetropolitan. Right now I’m finishing up Locke & Key Vol. 5, and I’ve requested a bunch of manga, the Saints/Boxers duology, and some of the new Hawkeye stuff. Also hauling another portion of my Hellblazer stash to work to share with a coworker.

            • I think I’m up to the end of volume 4 of Locke & Key. It took me a couple of volumes to really get into it, but the character writing and the art are both beautifully done, and it was the characters that really drew me in. Such a great story.

            • I wasn’t too hooked by it in the first volume either, but my opinion has improved greatly as I’ve gotten more into the story. One volume to go!

  2. Levi says:

    Good review, and I too noticed some of the big connections to other works (Lost, Lovecraft). Did you finish the series yet?

    Here is my review if you are interested:

    Take care!

    • Thanks Levi. I enjoyed your review – I think you pulled out some interesting threads that I overlooked.

      I haven’t finished the series yet – I have a huge to-read pile and try to keep up with a monthly online book club. But I’m definitely coming back to it. Have you read the other two volumes yet?

    • Just noticed the reviews for the others on your blog, which answers that question – think I’ll avoid reading the reviews until I’ve read the books though, don’t want to spoil them.

  3. […] of his Southern Reach trilogy, he transfers that atmosphere from the wilderness setting of Annihilation into the mundane world of office […]

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