My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Area X is an anomaly, a place vaguely defined by boundaries that separate it from the rest of the world. In Area X, an unprecedented variety of new spieces of flora and fauna of immense beauty and intrigue have taken over, making it an unwelcoming place for humans. The Southern Reach is a mysterious organisation, as they all tend to be in stories like this one, that aims to investigate the secrets of Area X by sending expeditions of scientists to collect samples, explore the land and analyse their findings. So far, all the expeditions have met with terrible fates. The scientists in the second expedition all killed themselves while in the third one they all killed each other. Another expedition return safely, but every member died of cancer soon afterwards. In his imaginative and deeply unsettling short novel, Jeff Vandermeer tells the story of the twelfth expedition, sent into the belly of the beast that is Area X.
Four women enter Area X under hypnosis from the expedition leader, the psychologist, to keep them calm while crossing the border. Jeff Vandermeer wastes no time, as he starts pointing out details that, by the end of the book may come to seem small, but initially induce the feeling that something is not right. The women are given no names so that we only know them as the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and finally, our point of view, the biologist. One of the first unsettling things we learn, apart from the lack of names of the characters, is that the fifth member of the expedition, the linguist, dropped out of the mission before they even crossed the border.
Jeff Vandermeer writes a story that grips you from the beginning, as you learn more and more about Area X and the expeditions, and start realising just how little the reader and the scientists both actually know about it all. Equipped with outdated scientific apparatus left over by previous missions, the team settles in at the base camp where they soon discover a tunnel close by that is not shown in any map. The biologist feels an inexplicable attraction towards the tunnel and when they set out to explore inside it, they find disturbing, biblical-styled writings on the walls.
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been.
From there the novel becomes truly horrifying. The biologist narrates a series of weird happenings while it becomes more and more clear that the women are not welcomed there. As Area X slowly reveals itself, the biologist does too. Her husband was a member of the all-men eleventh expedition and, as the biologist explains, he did return home but he was not himself anymore. Unfortunately, the distant and emotionless voice of the biologist might have served as the best narrator for this specific story, but not so much for the character herself. While it is clear that the author is trying to show a sinister, kind of remote quality about the protagonist, he does not really get there with her in an impactful way.
It is difficult to write a lengthy review of Annihilation seeing as it is the kind of short novel better experienced when very little is known about it prior to picking it up. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy belongs to the New Weird subgenre of science fiction which he defines as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science-fiction and fantasy.” It is a fascinating and penetrating first book that does little to answer any questions but much to evoke them. As you crawl inside Area X along the twelfth expedition, you will notice it is changing you…or is it putting you back together?
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