FSG Originals, 2014.
Jeff VanderMeer, the editor behind such acclaimed anthologies as The Weird, The Steampunk Bible and the exhaustive The Time Traveler’s Almanac, returns to longer fiction with this tense, unsettling novel.
Annihilation is the perfect example of what VanderMeer terms “the new weird”, blending horror, sci-fi and revelation in a dark, brilliant narrative where a prosaic setting turns out to be anything but. It focuses on an exploratory team, four female scientists sent to explore Area X.
This team, composed of a psychologist, biologist, anthropologist and surveyor, is the 12th sent into Area X, an uninhabited wilderness reminiscent of Florida. It has been quarantined for 30 years after an unexplained “incident” and has returned to nature. The initial impression of Area X is a new Eden, a verdant swampland filled with wildlife.
But things are not as they seem, as the exploratory team quickly learns.
The story is told through journal entries from the unnamed biologist. And her narrative is unreliable as Hell, blending flashbacks from her life before joining the team, memories of her husband who was a part of the 11th team, and documents of her team’s explorations, disintegration and transformation.
Things are immediately amiss as she repeatedly refers to a mammoth cave structure near the team’s base camp as a “tower”. She also talks about how the psychologist is using hypnotic suggestions to control the other team members, but after venturing into the “tower” and discovering mysterious writing in some sort of alien spore, the biologist claims she is immune to the suggestions.
From there the team begins to break down, the anthropologist leaves the expedition, the surveyor is injured in the “tower” by a mysterious creature the call “The Crawler”. The psychologist vanishes and the biologist is drawn to a mysterious lighthouse that seems to indicate the team is not alone in Area X.
We also learn the fate of the previous teams — a grisly mix of murder, suicide and death by cancer upon return.
I don’t want to give too much away, as VanderMeer ratchets up the tension and mystery in this brisk read. The unknown presence in Area X, coupled with the mental breakdown of the members of the 12th team immediately harked back to H.P. Lovecraft at his finest — echoing such classics as At the Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space, albeit without the overt racism. There’s alien fungi, mysterious messages and plenty of unspeakable horrors.
I honestly wouldn’t be too surprised if Cthulhu turned up in a later book.
Annhilation is the first in a trilogy dubbed “The Southern Reach”, after the government outpost that guards the entry into Area X. FSG has taken the unusual approach of releasing all three books this year—Annihilation came out in February, followed by Authority in May and Acceptance in early September. Authority switches perspective to the government workers outside of Area X, while Acceptance follows another team into the Lovecraftian swamp of alien horrors.
I like that approach. Not only does it give me plenty to cover in a short period of time without being untimely, but it also avoids “Rothfuss-itis”, a disease that causes fans to constantly carp in social media that an author’s latest book has not come out yet.
So look for reviews of Authority and Acceptance soon.
— Michael Senft