Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization, and the government is involved in sending secret missions to explore Area X. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third died as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh returned as shadows of their former selves.
Annihilation opens with the twelfth expedition. The group is composed of four women, including our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all of their observations, scientific and otherwise; and, above all, to avoid succumbing to the unpredictable effects of Area X itself. But it’s the surprises that came across the border with them that change everything—the secrets of the expedition members themselves, including our narrator. What do they really know about Area X—and each other?
It takes a special kind of talent to craft a mystery with no overarching resolution. Shall we call it Vandermeerian? Vandermeeresque? Martha and the Vandellmeers?
Whatever you call this skill, it’s certain that Jeff Vandermeer’s got it by the bucketload (it’s also quite likely that his choice of surname is no accident). And while “answers” may indeed be forthcoming in the upcoming sequels Authority and Acceptance, they arguably aren’t necessary, as it’s the lack of answers that lends his novel Annihilation so much of its momentum.
Make no mistake, I don’t mean to imply that Vandermeer simply threw together random elements of the mindfu@# and called it art. The author who gave us the brilliant City of Saints and Madmen and the mushroomy noir fungalpunk of Finch would never be so lazy, and I’ll fight you if you disagree. There’s a structure here, and if Annihilation’s four nameless characters are unable to discover the secret, that’s part of the plan. It’s the search for meaning that gives us meaning.
That’s certainly the case for the biologist, Annihilation’s narrator. One of four women tasked with becoming the twelfth expedition into Area X—the others being a surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist—the biologist is our bridge to sanity, and as her grasp wavers, so does ours.
Right off the start, Vandermeer sets up a tone of wavering ambiguity with the biologist’s description of “the tower,” which for all intents and purposes appears to be nothing of the sort:
At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back, I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.
Very quickly, the quartet begins to feel the effects of Area X. Or they think they are. Again, the only thing certain here is uncertainty. Area X, at first glance a fertile wilderness, may cause hallucinations. Past expeditions have ended in tragedy. Villages once inhabited are now overrun with rot and decay, and something more: “in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos.” In the tower, strange words written in “what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism” spiral downwards along the walls.
Who, or what, is writing these unnerving sentences? What truly happened in Area X? While Vandermeer has taken pains to deny an intentional link to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, there’s no denying they both deal in similar themes of unknown realms, scientific curiosity, and non-human influences on our species (what Lovecraft called “the cosmic horror,” commenting on the utter insignificance of mankind). And while Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth aren’t around to destroy your sanity, there are pangs of eldritch horror in Vandermeer’s descriptions of the mysterious tower writer (what the biologist dubs “the Crawler”), the indefinable otherness of a biological form we can only estimate at through the marks of its passage:
…oval, and about a foot long by half a foot wide. Six of them were splayed out over the steps, in two rows. A flurry of indentations inside these shapes resembled the marks left by cilia. About ten inches outside of these tracks, encircling them, were two lines. This irregular double circle undulated out and then in again, almost like the hem of a skirt. Beyond this “hem” were faint indications of further “waves,” as of some force emanating from a central body that had left a mark. It resembled most closely the lines left in sand as the surf recedes during low tide. Except that something had blurred the lines and made them fuzzy, like charcoal drawings.
In its review of utter uncertainty confronted with humanity’s ceaseless quest for answers, Annihilation ranks with Stanislaw Lem’s majestic novel Solaris and Stanley Kubrick’s glorious 2001: A Space Odyssey, two other sci-fi explorations into identity; into what we were, are, and may become. The terrain of Area X and the biologist’s trek also recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s thoughtful film Stalker, which follows explorers into an unnatural zone that may offer the chance to fulfill one’s most private dreams (Tarkovsky also directed the seminal adaptation of Solaris, although I personally care more for the Steven Soderbergh version).
Like its artistic ancestors, Annihilation manages the not-inconsiderable feat of linking a tale of personal strife and evolution with another story talking place on a larger, almost fathomless scale. Through our inability to comprehend the vast, we gain insight into ourselves. The biologist may not arrive at the answers she sought, but she does find answers, compelling her to continue the expedition. Which, in the end, is all any of us can do. That, or give up. To use a cliche (as I am nowhere near as fine a writer as Vandermeer), it’s the journey that’s important, not the end.
Have I raved enough? Here’s the bottom line: Annihilation is an utterly wonderful, maddening mindjob of the finest sort. I’ll be reading it again, and I await Authority and Acceptance with a childlike delight.
Don’t disappoint me, Vandermeer. You wouldn’t like me when I’m disappointed. I tend to whine.