Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014)
Annihilation is book one in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s an extremely well written tale that falls directly into that gutter between horror and science fiction (where all the best stories come from.) This book, to me, has a very OLD feel, like VanderMeer has been reading a lot of pre-1950’s horror stories, particularly in the Lovecraftian vein, and as a fan of H.P. and his lot, I see this as a good thing. The novel is an exploration story, but one in which the main character sees and experiences things that are beyond her power to describe---which is particularly disturbing for the reader considering the fact that we are depending on the character’s ability to describe what’s happening for us to experience the story!
The book is written in first person from the perspective of a character know as “The Biologist.” None of the characters in the novel have names, and the reason for this is hinted at in the story, but each character has a FUNCTION which is essential to the mission: there is the biologist, the surveyor, the psychologist, the linguist, etc. The story involves four explorers going into a strange, almost alien area separated from the “normal” world by some kind of barrier. Once inside “Area X,” the group are supposed to explore and record observations. They aren’t told what they are supposed to be observing, exactly, or what the actual goal for the operation is, so most of the characters seem confused and frightened almost from the very beginning. There is some understanding that Area X might be growing, and the explorers know that they aren’t the first group to go in---and that previous missions did NOT end well. In addition, and unfortunately for the party, something about the mysterious area tends to warp the explorers’ senses and upset their ability to entirely grasp what’s happening.
The Biologist, who functions as the narrator for the story, is a hyper-intelligent, detail-oriented character, driven by scientific curiosity, but also suffering from a marked detachment from humanity. We learn this not only from her descriptions of her interactions with the other characters, but also from her flashbacks to scenes from her disintegrating marriage. We also learn fairly quickly that her husband was a member of a previous mission to Area X, and that he returned transformed, his mind irrevocably altered by whatever he experienced as part of that mission.
VanderMeer is adept at getting us into the mind of The Biologist, and his prose strikes a difficult balance between descriptive and vague, which I found unsettling and perfect for a character who is under the influence of an environment (and various other factors) that are interfering with her senses and thought processes. The reader is depending on the descriptions and explanations of a character who isn’t certain that her own senses are working correctly, and this increases the tension and unease of the tale.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a film version of this book coming out very soon, starring Natalie Portman, but I’m finding it somewhat difficult to envision how the director is going to film this novel. The majority of the tale takes place in The Biologist’s head. It’s her describing what she’s seeing or feeling, her having flashbacks to fights with her husband or to previous biological observations that she’s made. When you mix this interior quality of the narrative with the rather “indescribable” elements of some of The Biologist’s experiences, I’m wondering how they can hope to present these scenes to viewers, short of handing out peyote or acid tabs to each customer as they walk into the theater. (Maybe in some markets, this will be the preferred method of viewing the film.) I’m intrigued, regardless, and may even pay money to see the film at the theater---if I have any money when it comes out. (Never a “for sure” proposition.)
Anyway, VanderMeer’s book is short, creepy, well written, and altogether, a fun tale. Some people might find the story to be a bit too weird, but any fan of Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard or any of the “golden age” pulp horror stories will find a lot to chew on here, and if you LIKE the book, there are two more in the series to read, which Mr. Grove tells me are much thicker than the first book! Having not read those, however, I can only say that THIS one is excellent.
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Commander in Cheap of The P.E.W.)
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