Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
“That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.” -- Annihilation, page 108
(Warning: some of this review may contain spoilers for the Southern Reach trilogy!)
Annihilation follows an all-female expedition into the strange, unexplainable environment on a forgotten part of the American coastline. The team – compromising of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist (the leader) and a biologist (our protagonist), all of whom have been stripped of their names – try to document and understand the warped landscape. In doing so, they discover impossible, terrible things: animals with human eyes, a haunting cry through the reeds at dusk, a tunnel spiralling deep into the earth that the biologist swears is alive, and a brightness growing inside them like a parasite. Changing them into something not entirely human.
Annihilation is the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This science fiction series belongs to several other defining genres too: horror, on occasion, as well as New Weird and Cosmic Horror. The overall tone is one of intense awe and dread, which leaves you curious but terrified to keep reading. The trilogy follows members of the Southern Reach, a secret organisation dedicated to studying this alien phenomenon, as they desperately try and reveal the truth of Area X – even though Area X defies definition.
Now that we’ve read the book, let’s discuss!
What did you like/dislike about the book?
I liked VanderMeer’s stunning prose and the mix of dread and awe that suffuses his writing. The Southern Reach trilogy was an exciting introduction to the genre of Cosmic Horror.
However, the very nature of this narrative – -the alien, unknowable entity that is Area X, that has mystified and frustrated the Southern Reach for over 30 years – means that we don’t receive any hard answers and definitions. The trilogy is full of speculation and wonder, and while that mystery might have kept me reading in the beginning, it made me impatient towards the end. The answers that VanderMeer does offer up are vague and difficult to understand. In the end, Area X is simply beyond comprehension.
“Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.” (p. 168)
If you have seen the movie, what did you think of the two? Did one perform better than the other? Discuss.
The Netflix film, starring the talented Natalie Portman, leans more heavily into the horror of Area X. In the book, we are guided through the alien terrain by the biologist, who is endlessly curious about the natural phenomena unfurling around her but less empathetic towards her human companion. I wouldn’t describe her as apathetic, but instead grimly determined and self-sufficient. In Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy, VanderMeer writes about the biologist,
“She has a kind of self-possession that comes not just from knowing who she is but from knowing that, if it comes down to it, she needs no one. Some professionals might diagnose that as a disorder, but in the biologist it comes across as an absolute and unbending clarity.” (p. 271)
This difference suits both the movie and the novel: the horror elements of the film enhance the inherent danger of Area X and instill in the watcher the appropriate amount of dread, while in the novel, our protagonist’s clinic point of view propels us cleanly through Area X, where another character might be unravelling in terror.
The movie also offers more answers than the book. The characters explain their motivations outright, where in the book it is more complicated. For example, in the book, the biologist doesn’t enter into Area X simply because of her dying husband. In fact, her husband is already dead. He is only a small part of a much bigger, complicated reason why she volunteers for this suicide mission.
Have you read the other two novels in the Southern Reach Trilogy? Are you happy with the way the story progresses after Annihilation?
After finishing Annihilation, I was hungry for as much information on Area X as I could find. But when I started its sequel, Authority, I found the pace of my reading slowed significantly. Our new protagonist, John, joins the Southern Reach and has to slog through decades worth of badly organised research, while also trying to deal with the subterfuge from Central, the larger organisation controlling the Southern Reach. The office environment is incredibly different from Area X in Annihilation. In Authority, much of the dread that suffused the first book is gone.
The final book, Acceptance, throws us back into Area X, but it jumps through several alternating point of views (all of whom are corrupted by Area X, and so cannot give the reader a truly coherent account) and functions as a slow attempt to tie up loose ends without actually giving us any real answers.
Annihilation is a brilliant novel full of awe and dread, but the rest of the trilogy is, in my opinion, too vague and frustrating to capture my attention as much as the first novel did.
Don’t be afraid to comment with your own thoughts and opinions on Annihilation!