‘Annihilation,’ by Jeff VanderMeer
(2014, 195 pages, Genre: Science Fiction / Horror)
“’The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what is a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?’” This is an excerpt from the journal of the biologist, the otherwise unnamed main character in Jeff VanderMeer’s first installment of his Southern Reach trilogy. For over thirty years, a government agency called The Southern Reach has been sending small groups of people into a mysterious, forbidding tract of wilderness called Area X. Many of these participants have either never returned, come back with troubling psychological or physical conditions, or have killed each other while inside the borders of Area X. Stories have spread of strange new flora and fauna, and of occurrences and objects that defy explanation. The map mentioned in the biologist’s journal does not account for these unsettling idiosyncrasies. Along with three other women, the biologist is part of the twelfth expedition into this abandoned landscape. Her compatriots are a surveyor, an anthropologist, and their leader, a psychologist.
The four women undergo months of grueling training to prepare themselves for life in Area X. The biologist feels compelled to join the mission because her husband had been part of the eleventh expedition, and he, like many others, returned somehow not himself. Her once affable husband is simply a husk of his former self, and later develops terminal cancer, a fate shared by an alarming number of those returning from Area X.
Propelled by grief and a fierce need to quantify and objectively understand the type of environment that would transform her husband so dramatically, the biologist plunges into Area X, although like all other members of each expedition, she cannot recollect how she manages to breach the border or what said border was like. The biologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist are vaguely aware that the psychologist hypnotized them to alleviate any fear they may have about entering this landscape. They struggle to make sense of their environment, not adequately aided by the obsolete, inadequate equipment they were provided before entering Area X. After four days of trekking across the land from the border, they discover a structure buried many feet beneath the soil. The biologist insists it is a tower, while the others call it a tunnel. After much deliberation, they decided to enter the tunnel, and begin to make their way down its winding staircase. They observe cryptic, seemingly unending text along the wall, and when the biologist leans in to get a closer look, she realizes the letters are formed from tiny, moving lifeforms. She accidentally inhales miniscule spores being released by these lifeforms, and the effects of this reverberate throughout the rest of the book.
As the group descends further into the tower/tunnel, what they encounter and experience becomes weirder and weirder. If you’ve seen the incredible film adaptation of this book starring Natalie Portman, you will still find surprises in this novel, as there are quite a few details and plot points that differ greatly from the movie.
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