A review I published last week at Fantastica of Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. The only thing I’d read of his before was a very Borgesian chapter in City of Saints and Madman, so I went into it expecting a very ‘conscious’ reading experience, rather than what I would call more passive escapism.
MR: Walking the line between science fiction and horror, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a fabulous read exploring the inevitable futility behind clutching to reason, science, and civilisation. It won the 2014 Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards for Best Novel.
The story follows one of the members of the twelfth expedition sent into the abandoned and unspoilt coastal area of Area X by The Southern Reach – the now governing body of the northern U.S.A – to explore, document and, if possible though unlikely, survive.
This unnamed biologist, and her similarly anonymous companions (a psychologist, anthropologist and surveyor) start the story already having crossed the unseen border into Area X, and making their way to the base camp to pick up where the last expedition left off. In the vein of all great horror stories, as the unseen threats externally close in, tensions within the group rise.
With characters defined only by their occupations, and locations similarly having archetypal markers – the tower (or is it a tunnel?), the abandoned village, the lighthouse – VanderMeer invites the reader to puzzle over his intent as author just as the biologist is trying to work out what the hell is going on in Area X.
Annalee Newitz writing at io9 highlights how it’s in the ‘brief flashes to the real world outside Area X that we begin to see a powerful subtext welling up about what ecosystems really are, and the role humans play in them’.
In this sense the biologist is the perfect narrator. She is infused with the desire to observe and the curiosity to discover, so when Area X begins to change her, she herself becomes the object under observation.
Simon Ings in The Guardian sees an ‘admission of human frailty and ambition’, highlighting a passage towards the end of the novel where the biologist finally admits ‘our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish’.
I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart or Darkness: a journey into the impacts, limitations and horrors of colonialism that rips the veil off Kipling-esque boys’ adventure tales to reveal the horror story within.
In Conrad’s classic the narrator is also sent by a powerful bureaucracy into unknown and presumably hostile territory, and what they discover goes beyond the ‘reason’ underpinning the society they have waded in from.
Where Conrad uses the journey up the Congo to examine racism, imperialism and the ignorance and prejudice of western ‘civilisation’, VanderMeer looks at our desire to draw boundaries, to catalogue, conquer and create meaning.
Early in the story, after discovering the tower, the biologist discovers an organism writing words on a wall. In her journal she writes ‘Even though I didn’t know what the words meant, I wanted them to mean something so that I might more swiftly remove doubt, bring reason back into all my equations.’
Besides tightly following a narrator as they head further and further into the unknown, both Heart of Darkness and Annihilation centre on a universal truth – the importance of looking beyond the veil of what we assume and are told.
In this first volume of The Southern Reach Trilogy VanderMeer seems to be saying that resistance is futile – we can’t separate ourselves from our external environment, literally or figuratively. The biologist writes ‘that’s how the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.’
On top of all the thought-provoking ideas, Annihilation is a gripping read and I can’t wait to move on to the sequels. I’ve got plenty of theories about where the story is going to go and I’m keen to test them against VanderMeer’s formidable imagination.