Reviewing: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Please enjoy this picture of the book including parts of my pyjamas and dressing gown I was unable to crop out.

TW: Suicide, body horror, infection/exposure to unknown contaminants, mind control

My Rating: 4 books out of 5

Highlights:

  • All-female team of scientists
  • Beautiful imagery and description
  • Genuinely unsettling
  • Unreliable narrator

“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

This is the single most bizarre book I have ever read. In Annihilation an unnamed team of female scientists venture on a research expedition into ‘Area X’, the site of an unexplained environmental anomaly. The nature of this anomaly is for the most part unknown at the beginning of the expedition – those involved are given maps, outdated equipment and notebooks and told to head for the lighthouse on the coast, but are unaware of exactly what it is they will find once they have entered Area X itself. All they know is that they are the twelfth expedition to go in, and those before them either came back changed, sick and dying, or never came out at all.

“More than anything, the information I was trying to process immobilized me. The words were composed of symbiotic fruiting bodies unknown to me. Second, the dusting of spores on the words meant that the father down into the tower we explored, the more the air would be full of potential contaminants. Was there any reason to relay this information to the others when it would only alarm them? No, I decided, perhaps selfishly.”

Now when I say unnamed, I mean it. We never even learn the name of the narrator. The scientists are encouraged to leave names behind at the border, referring to each other simply as ‘The Botanist’, ‘The Psychiatrist’, ‘The Anthropologist’. Our narrator is a biologist, and while we do learn throughout the book some of the elements of her life and upbringing that took her to Area X – after all, very few people will just walk into an unknown area that is unquestionably deadly in some way – but there’s still a curious distance even between her and the reader. As the story goes on, her narrative becomes more and more unusual, distanced, strange and not entirely trustworthy perhaps. Area X is changing her, and as such we as readers are left wondering if we can trust her account of the expedition. Even from the beginning she chooses which pieces of information and discovery she will share with her teammates – perhaps for good reason.

“Some of the houses had, over time, slid into the canal to the left and looked in their skeletal remains like creatures struggling to leave the water. It all seemed like something that had happened a century ago, and what was left were just vague recollections of the event.

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing”, and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch – all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney.”

The imagery of this book is incredibly unique and well-done. This is more on the literary end of what I tend to read, and for a relatively short book it took me a while to get through it.  The issue, I think, with ‘weird’ introspective fiction, that which deals with the indescribable and awesome, is that describing the indescribable is…tricky and tend to take a while. The writing quality was very good, the descriptions such as the one above (which I included in full because it was one of the visuals from both the book and the film that struck me the most) are strangely beautiful even as they are deadly. It’s an odd sort of book, in that quite a lot happens, but the slowly unravelling pace of it makes it seem to you as the reader that it is crawling along towards a horrifying unknown conclusion. There are a few scenes of body horror that manage – in the observant, focused words of the biologist describing them – to make your skin crawl. I did have a quote highlighted to use, but I have decided to leave it out for the pure and simple reasons that it may spoil an element of the book, and that while I put trigger warnings at the top, I still don’t want to accidentally upset someone.

“Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to “a safe place.” We were not told that the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red.”

This book is the start of a trilogy, and I definitely feel the need to finish all three if only in the hope of one day knowing what is going on in Area X. This is far more than an environmental disaster, and the amount these people have not been told could fill its own book.

Perhaps many, many books.

I did really enjoy it, I like it when horror elicits a genuine emotional response and this made me feel deeply unsettled for its entirety. The idea of something changing so fundamentally and uncontrollably within your own world, within your own body in some cases, is a disturbing one. The concept of hypnosis and mind control are terrifying, and I for one would be staying far, far away from Area X.

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