Book Review | Annihilation

Annihilation, the first entry in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy, has all the trappings of an ‘Alien’-style science fiction (mis)adventure, but it cuts through the clichés to deliver a haunting narrative about an expedition gone terribly wrong

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer

Nature is cruel. We tend to forget just how predatorial and merciless the natural world tends to be – ensconced as we are in our comfortable dwellings, distracted by technological innovations and – in the particular case of Malta – not really being surrounded by all that much of it.

But it’s worth remembering that, even before the struggle between good versus evil (and this includes the commonly-anthropomorphised God vs. Satan battle), early human civilisations were spurned to comment about and find justifications for the occurrences of natural phenomena.

You don’t have to look to hard for evidence of all this either – almost all pre-Christian, pre-scientific mythologies are built on a knee-jerk desire to personalise and understand just how – and perhaps, even why – the physical world works on us.

But though Jeff VanderMeer’s gripping novella Annihilation is set in a very contemporary – though geographically vague – environment, its deliberately narrow narrative perspective and total immersion into a richly defined – but ultimately mysterious – jungle landscape succeeds in hinting at the kind of sublime terror that powers our oldest treatments of nature.

The first instalment of the ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy of novellas – the subsequent parts of which will also be released this year, much like seasons of a TV series – Annihilation plunges a team of researchers into ‘Area X’ – a swathe of unspoiled land that has either psychologically damaged or claimed the lives of those who had previously stepped into its confines.

Tense: VanderMeer's expedition-thriller recalls films like Alien and The Thing.
Tense: VanderMeer's expedition-thriller recalls films like Alien and The Thing.

Forming part of the twelfth expedition into Area X, our (nameless) protagonists consist of four women: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist (effectively the team’s leader) and a biologist – who is our narrator.

Ostensibly employed to map the treacherous terrain, members of the team appear to have their own reasons for being there.

But the group never quite manages to strike up an easy camaraderie, and the biologist begins to suspect the psychologist of using ethically questionable tactics to keep the team under her thumb – methods to which the biologist appears to be immune.

The tension reaches a fever pitch when the biologist encounters hints of what appears to be sentient life on Area X… a discovery the psychologist appears suspiciously keen to keep under wraps.

The ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy is being shopped around for a film adaptation, and it’s easy to see why. VanderMeer – a prolific writer and editor working at the interstices of genre fiction – pares down his previously more baroque style in favour of a short, sharp delivery – the biologist’s voice, bristling with barely-sublimated resentments and a persistent sang-froid, only get mired in its own monologue when it needs to be – otherwise letting the landscape thrive.

Making the protagonist a biologist is of course another shrewd move on VanderMeer’s part. We are privy to hints of her life before the Southern Reach adventure – and her failed relationship with her husband – and what emerges is a socially awkward figure whose passion lies in her work and not much else.

So it’s perfectly fitting that, while she has trouble connecting to others emotionally, she’ll be inclined to rhapsodise about the complex natural processes that underpin her surroundings.

This slightly unhinged fascination is what gives Annihilation a true dramatic edge. The biologist knows full well that the landscape is dangerous, but neither can she help resist its allure – particularly when it yields up what appears to be a very juicy mystery.

The mystery that hangs over Area X is only compounded further by the biologist’s narration – whose psychological tics begin to feel more and more like alarm bells for the reader.

An early bone of contention among the team may seem petty – an argument about whether a structure looming in the distance is a ‘tower’ or a ‘tunnel’ – but the biologist’s skewed, slightly obsessive tone lends a creepy edge to it: if you can’t even trust what you see is in front of you, how are you expected to survive in this place, let alone map it with any confidence?

The key strength of VanderMeer’s novella is that while it appears to box-tick a number of science-fictional tropes, it places its main onus on both the psychological weight – and trauma – of the expedition, while teasing out the atmospheric mystery of the place to full effect.

It will be fascinating to observe how the following instalments of the Southern Reach unpick at the still-unrolled strands of the narrative. VanderMeer’s confident authorial hand suggests there will be more surprises than outright revelations throughout the course of it all, though.



At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft (1936)

Though VanderMeer’s has often been quick to dismiss any direct correlation between his work and that of eccentric weird fiction maestro HP Lovecraft, it would be hard to deny that Annihilation contains at least a submerged bit of DNA recalling this haunting novella about an expedition that gets really weird, really fast.

Arguably the unsung hero of a story behind properties like The Thing and Alien film franchises, Lovecraft’s story, told through from the perspective of a haunted survivor, pitches four explorers into the Antarctic… then forces them to confront the archaeological – though still very much alive – remnants of an ancient alien race which, though seeming to contain the secret to the origin of life on earth, is also hostile.

Lovecraft’s writing is often awkwardly lumpy, with adjectives unceremoniously piled over each other.

But his consistent, nihilistic philosophy contributed a unique strain to the development of the horror genre, and the upside of his excessive style is that it allows him to craft some truly vivid imagery.