Annihilation

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Title: Annihilation

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Series: The Southern Reach Trilogy

Page Count: 127

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3.5 stars

I picked this book up last year and read about 30 pages of it. I was intrigued by it but never got the chance to finish it for some reason I can’t recall. But I wanted to read it this year for a few reasons. The first was that I saw the trailer for the movie Annihilation. I was unaware that it was being adapted, but it looks like it’s going to be pretty good and visually stimulating. I decided to pick this up from the library for Spookathon and it was my favorite of the three books I read for the readathon.

***FYI: Plot spoilers below!

This story follows a group of four women who are tasked with mapping the terrain of a place called Area X. They are the twelfth group who have been sent in to observe the mysterious landscape, and remain unnamed through the story, only referred to as their professions – the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. They immediately discover a large landmark that is not on any of the maps they were given. Upon exploring the inside of the anomaly, a massive tower buried underground, they find strange writing inside on the walls composed of some unknown biological entity that the biologist is accidentally exposed to. She soon realizes that one of the side effects of her exposure is that she is no longer affected by the hypnotic treatment of the psychologist that none of them were aware was happening. The next day, two of the women in the group go missing, one of which is found dead in the tower. The other is found by the biologist in the lighthouse on the opposite side if their camp site. The biologist returns to camp alone and is confronted by the surveyor who is killed after an altercation between them. At the end of the story, the biologist decided to travel deeper into Area X instead of returning home, following the notes left behind from the previous expeditions.

The plot for this book is interesting but not overly action driven. There are some more intense scenes towards the end, but most of the beginning and middle of the book is devoted to characters exploring the landscape around them and trying to understand what the tower that is not present on the map is. The story is told from the singular point of view of the biologist who you learn has come to Area X in an attempt to understand as well as find out what happened to her husband who was a part of the previous eleventh expedition. There are a few scenes interspersed throughout the story that are flashbacks depicting their strained relationship before he left for Area X, as well as some from after he returned. Generally I’m not a huge fan of flashback scenes in books or movies, but I understand the necessity of sometimes having them. In this book they do not feel intrusive or overly out of place and do help to add to your understanding of the biologist’s character. These were the only parts of the story that I felt made it lag a little, but looking back on it I think that is mostly because of my feelings about flashback scenes.

The only thing that I didn’t really understand in the book was why the psychologist went to the lighthouse, leaving the rest of the group after they descended the tower. It is at some point in the story explained that the tower is actually alive and that the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions were to keep the group from knowing this so they would continue to explore it. However, she never actually goes into the tower with them, so even though the biologist notes that the psychologist seems scared of the tower, she never actually enters it. I wonder if the psychologist knew that the biologist was no longer affected by the hypnotism and was afraid that she and the surveyor were plotting against her, but it still doesn’t explain why she didn’t just leave Area X instead of trying to hide out in the lighthouse.

The writing style of this book lends so much to the story between the plot, the characters, and the world building. The whole story is written from the perspective of the biologist who you later realize is writing it in the form of a log for future expeditions that may come after hers’. The writing is very sterile and almost clinical, which as you get to know the biologist, you understand is the nature of how she herself is trained to analyze everything for her job.  A lot of the things that are described in the scenery are defined in great detail, but in a way that seems almost emotionally detached from what is being seen or what is happening, like it’s being observed by a third party from outside of the situation.  This may seem strange but it actually lends a great deal to the book by helping to create a sense of tension that it continually mounting throughout because you are put in the position of knowing only as much as the person telling the story to you. The pacing of the story also adds to the tension because the beginning of it is a slow burn where there is a lot of exploration between the characters, the landscape, and the biologist’s past relationship with her husband. The action only starts to increase in the back half of the story.

From the beginning you can tell that there is some strain within the group. It feels like a bunch of people forced to work together on a group project and are trying to keep the peace just so they can get it over with. Even though everyone is professional and is there to do their job there are some incompatible personalities. The characters have the tendency to be somewhat flat and non-descript at times but I feel like this is purposefully done at times to keep you focused on the biologist. The anthropologist is the first person to go missing so you don’t get much interaction with her, but it is obvious from the start that she is skittish and is definitely the most unnerved by being in Area X. The psychologist is the most unknown person in the story which is mostly due to the fact that once the biologist realizes how she is controlling them, she tries to put as much distance between herself and the psychologist as she can. All you really know about her is that she works for the company that creates and funds the expeditions and that she is sent in with them to keep them under control enough to complete their task.

The surveyor is a strange character because she seems like she is outwardly the most calm person of the group, but she grows increasingly unnerved by the events taking place. She becomes more and more suspicious of the biologist, who tells her what the psychologist has been doing to them, but does not seem to feel the same way about the psychologist who has been forcing her to do things under hypnotic suggestion without her consent. To be fair, after the biologist tells her about the psychologist, she tries to control her using the same hypnotic cues, which does not work. She really seems to start falling apart after they find the anthropologist and the idea of not having a leader to follow appears to making even more frantic.

In this story you get the most exposure to the biologist. She is generally ambiguous in character. She is not good or bad but she is a very self-reflective person and she is readily willing to admit to her wrongs and manipulative actions, which I personally feel like I haven’t seen a lot when a story is told from a first person point of view. The character either circumvents blame for their actions or that topic is simply not addressed. The biologist is a highly internal and guarded person and is really the only well-rounded character in the story. The only thing that bothered me about her was that a lot of her personality shortcomings were described in context of the relationship with her husband.

Overall I found the plot of this book really engaging and I liked that it was short and to the point because I think the plot could have gotten bogged down if it was much longer. There are, of course, some problems that arise from the book being so short, the most prominent to me being that the other characters fell flat at times. I feel like this book is a big setup to the overall trilogy, mostly because there is still a lot of unanswered questions about Area X as well as what happened to the previous expeditions and our main character. I’m interested to see where this trilogy will lead to, especially because it is so popular within the science fiction community but I really haven’t heard many people talking about it. I’m not 100% sure when I’ll be picking up the next book, but I’ll definitely be continuing deeper into the Southern Reach trilogy.

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