Annihilation is the first part of American author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, focusing on the mysterious region known as Area X. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any science-fiction, reviews had been mostly positive and the book was released in 2014 (it occurred to me recently that I haven’t actually read that many books from the 21st century).
The trilogy focuses on a dystopian future in the location known as Area X, a quarantine zone cut off from the rest of the continent. Within is a wild and thriving ecosystem filled with scientific anomalies, unusual wildlife and unexplainable, almost supernatural, events. Little is known of what caused this catastrophic change in the environment, but the government has been sending expeditions to the area to document and record their findings. Each expedition has ended in disaster; one group ended up shooting each other to pieces, another came back with aggressive forms of cancer and died, another all committed suicide. The narrative focuses on the twelfth expedition, an all female group consisting of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist. It is from the biologist that the perspective of the story is told.
It really is a fascinating premise. VanderMeer does well to create a scenario where a chunk of the world is now unchartered, due to circumstances not explained to the reader (at least, not yet), eliciting wonder and tension and unknowing. And Area X is a bizarre world. There are a few science-fiction cliches to be found, but generally I found the concept to be original and was key to drawing me towards the book in the first place.
But unfortunately I was disappointed. VanderMeer can clearly write – his descriptions of the events transpiring in Area X are creepy and suspenseful for the most part. My biggest gripe was that the protagonist, or point of view, was never particularly interesting. She is not even underdeveloped – there is a lot (maybe too much) that is spelled out to us about her as a person, about her past, the links between Area X and her husband (who was part of the previous expedition and eventually returned a changed man). Nothing about the biologist gripped me to read on. As I was reading I considered other narrative styles that may have worked better. Perhaps switching between members of the team, focusing on their increasing paranoia towards each other, but ultimately the angle VanderMeer went for could have worked so much better if the protagonist was a little more compelling.
I have absolutely no problem with the open ending, the scores of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of Area X; it is a trilogy after all, and some aspects are all the more intriguing the less we know of them. Overall, my desire to uncover the mysteries of Area X was undermined by a bland and meandering cast. Some highlights for sure, but I don’t think Annihilation did enough to make me want to continue with the Southern Reach Trilogy – not any time soon at least.