Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer

There are times when I begin to grow tired of science fiction. This happens when I pick up a string of novels that feature the same overused tropes with formulaic characters in a familiar, yet modified setting. But when you have an author like Jeff VanderMeer, you know at a minimum you are in for something unique. And you hope, with greedy eyes, that this weird fiction that you are about to partake of is both savory and filling.

In the case of Annihilation, the first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer delivers a story that will give you that post-Thanksgiving dinner turkey coma. And seeing that I was in a bit of a slump, this novel came at the right time. Clocking in at under two hundred pages, Annihilation is a short novel indeed, but it is not to be confused with the cheap pulp fiction novels of the golden age. It is a wonderfully weird and suspenseful novel that leaves the reader actively trying to figure out what is going on.

The story takes place around what is likely the gulf coast at a sequestered location known as “Area X.” Eleven expeditions (composed of small groups of scientists) have traveled to the area to investigate a mysterious tower that descends deep into a lush, overgrown terrain. This area is problematic, seeing as no one has escaped the journey without dying or being terribly changed for the worse. The twelfth expedition, carried out by four women, includes a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist. Their mission is to document and collect any evidence that can help explain the dark mysteries of this seemingly innocuous environment, in fear that it could threaten human existence as we know it.

Almost no novel can escape comparison. But this one comes close. The experience of reading it was like watching the TV show Lost — at least for the first season when I thought the writers actually had an end in mind. As far as novels, I would compare it very closely to my favorite story by James Tiptree, Jr., The Screwfly Solution. Both stories involve the investigation of a foreign area where a spreading infection is psychologically altering people’s minds to kill. Of course, this novel is in no way derivative and VanderMeer has mentioned in interviews that the story’s genesis was spawned from a dream he had of living words being scribed on a wall.

While the setting is peculiar and left me at the edge of my seat wondering what was going on, it was the characters that made the story. The novel is written as a journal entry from the biologist who remains nameless (as do the other characters). She becomes the leader of the expedition, at first trusting the other women with her life, and then becoming suspicious that each is lying and conspiring to kill her. The sense of dread felt by the biologist captures the greatness of what good horror fiction is all about. The gore and bloodlust of modern horror cinema (and novels) has devolved a genre that was perfected by great film makers like Alfred Hitchcock. VanderMeer captures the same type of suspense — a fear of the unknown — that made each page a joy to read.

I also want to comment briefly on the story’s length. There are not many novels that are shy of three hundred pages. Even fewer are shorter than two hundred pages. Annihilation‘s brevity is what helps the pacing work so well. There is little, if any, filler material and even though character is king, this is still a story about ideas. This differs from literary fiction, which is often light on plot and heavy on character study. It is also different from epic fantasy, which typically has sprawling character arcs and high global stakes. I wish more science fiction novels would be this concise, while still allowing for characters to be rich enough to justify a novel length. It left me wanting more and for a series, this is a very good thing.

Annihilation was probably the best novel I’ve read in the last year and I can’t wait to read the next installment in this trilogy. For fans of the New Weird or anyone looking for a SF-themed psychological thriller, give this novel a shot.

peter 100x100Peter Snede – AISFP Contributor

Peter is a husband, father of twin boys, and an engineer who grew up on a steady diet of Narnia and Dragonlance books. When he’s not working, wrestling his toddlers, or writing fiction, he often can be found blogging about books and life. He also can be found on Twitter.

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  1. Great review. I snagged the book when it was first released and ended up ripping right through it. It was such a compelling read. You are so correct, there are no wasted words here. There is an economy of storytelling that is highly effective for the type of story Vandermeer was trying to tell. This is an impressive work from an author who often impresses. Can’t wait to see what Authority holds for us.

  2. Tim ward says:

    I am always attracted to comments that compare stories to Lost, but I’ve yet to find one that really delivered. I would love for this to do that. I like shorter reads, too, especially when they go quickly.

    • Lost is a stretch of a comparison, but it resonates with people on where this might fall on the weirdness and mysteriousness spectrum.

      I do recommend the Tiptree story to complement the novel if people find the premise interesting.

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