Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, has been made into a film by Alex Garland. And so we return to our original review, first published in 2014 when Fourth Estate published all three books over the course of a single exhilarating year.
Annihilation concerns an expedition – the twelth such expedition if we believe the information we are given (and why wouldn’t we, why wouldn’t we?) – ‘manned’, if we can say such a thing, by four women, none of whom have names (names having caused disturbances within previous expeditions), who we know only as the biologist (our narrator), the psychologist, the anthropologist and the surveyor. Their expedition takes them over a border (which seems to require some sort of drug to ease the mind through) into Area X, a mysterious and remote environmental disaster zone. Each member of the team is encouraged to keep a journal.
Now, one of the pleasures of reading Annihilation comes from the unexpected way in which the narrative develops. Relatively early on you get the impression that everyone could die (the story has that George RR Martin ‘no-one is safe’ quality). This, coupled with the nightly groaning of some nearby beastie and the distant flicker of a possibly inhabited lighthouse, go some way to have you turning each page somewhat tentatively (as if horrors could ensue) – eventually the point comes when horrors do ensue. I knew it! you exclaim as you read, taking some satisfaction in their arrival. There is a nearby tunnel into the earth, which the biologist refers to as a tower and which may be constructed from organic matter (is that a pulse she can feel beneath her fingertips?) – an initial exploration had this reader recalling Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
There is more to Annihilation that simply monsters, however. There is the way in which the small team rub along (or don’t); the mechanisms put in place to act as failsafes (you’ll want to keep your eye on that psychologist for one). There is the way the landscape snags you (VanderMeer works hard to bring this blasted place to life – this is a book made up of words you can feel beneath your fingers – the only worry would be that you pricked yourself, so sharp is some of the imagery). And, of course, there is the biologist’s back story, her marriage, her reasons for making up the numbers on the 12th expedition.
The most important part of Annihilation, though, is a question. This is, after all, the first part of a trilogy and what should a trilogy do more than anything else? It should make you want to read on. Actually it should do more than that. It should make you want to read on right now. Does it do that? Yes. Yes it does. In spades.
Any Cop?: A dense, slim, beautiful novel that more than whets the appetite for the other books in the trilogy.