Book Review: Annihilation is Disturbing and Exhilarating from Cover to Cover

by Jesse Adams - 2/19/2018

I grew up about an hour north of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Florida Panhandle's 68,000-acre wonderland of biodiversity and rare ecosystems. I often visited there with my family as a kid; in fact, walking through St. Marks, marveling at the flowers and moss and butterflies and birds, is one of my earliest memories. It's gorgeous there - lush and unspoiled, vivid and colorful and palpably alive. When I heard Jeff VanderMeer drew inspiration from St. Marks for his book Annihilation, I thought my intimate knowledge of the setting would insulate me from some of the fear I'd heard this book causes in its readers. After all, I'd already seen the real salt marshes and forests. I'd visited the actual Lighthouse. I'd walked on that beach. 

It didn't help. Not one bit. From the first page (and that's not a figure of speech), Annihilation suffuses readers with a sense of creeping dread that won't be easily shaken off when they put the book down. Assuming, of course, that they're actually able to put the book down, which is easier said than done. It's been a long time since I was so conflicted between the compulsion to keep reading and visceral unease about turning the next page. In the end, Annihilation was well worth enduring the urge to sleep with the light on; it's a cleverly written, hauntingly strange, and utterly engrossing story. 

As Annihilation begins, the reader is dropped into the middle of a story already in progress: a group of four women, known only by their professional titles (Biologist, Surveyor, Psychologist, and Anthropologist) are on an expedition into the mysterious and ominous Area X. We are told little about this place (the characters don't know much themselves), but the details we do learn pack a punch. Area X is near a military base, something went wrong an unspecified amount of time ago, and it's getting worse. The Southern Reach (the shadowy organization after which the trilogy is named) has sent eleven prior expeditions into Area X, and most or all have met various terrible fates. One group committed mass suicide, one murdered each other, one came back as oddly vacant versions of themselves and then died of cancer. Presumably, the other expeditions fared no better. In snippets, we are told a little of the Southern Reach's nigh-Orwellian training procedures and the extraordinary caution they exercise when even approaching the Border of Area X. As we digest this information - still only a few pages into the story - we immediately begin to feel the weight of the only question that matters: just what the hell is wrong with this place?

Part of the feeling of dread, of wrongness, that Vandermeer creates grows out of the superficial peace and beauty of Area X. We know terrible things have happened here, and are likely to happen again. However, seen through the eyes of the Biologist, Area X is a green place full of intricate and fascinating life, where limited human intrusion has left a minimal footprint and nature can be appreciated in its unaltered state. The beauty of the place makes the unseen threat even more terrifying by contrast. Like the place that inspired it, Area X hides danger beneath a calming cloak of green. At St. Marks, along with the brightly colored birds and cute squirrels, alligators lurk unseen in the ponds. Panthers prowl silently in the forests. Snakes slither unnoticed within feet of visitors.

In Area X, the dangers are nothing so mundane as wild animals. Oh, no... the four protagonists quickly learn they are dealing with something incomprehensible and far stranger than they can imagine. They discover a mysterious tunnel (or inverted tower?) spiraling down into the earth, and upon investigating, they find writing on the wall, spiraling continuously down into the darkness below. Without giving too much away, the writing - both the content of the words and the method of the writing - are deeply unsettling. You may find the words repeating in your head when you aren't reading Annihilation, and you won't find them a welcome presence in your mind.

It's difficult to explain much more about the story without revealing things best left to surprise the reader. Suffice it to say, the story progresses quickly and purposefully, surprising the reader at every turn and offering no time to catch a breath before building to a genuinely stunning conclusion. Annihilation is a comparatively short read, but that's because Jeff VanderMeer trimmed it down to its essential elements and threw away everything else. The personal arcs and character-building elements are present, and they add much depth to the story without weighing it down. Exposition is extremely sparse; the reader sees through the narrator's eyes, only privy to the information she possesses, which isn't much. The result is a lean, efficient, and haunting thriller that I can confidently promise will stand apart from anything else you've read.

Time to go start Book Two, Authority, and hope I get some sleep tonight. 

Jesse Adams is a lifelong fan of speculative fiction and Chair of Multiverse Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention (coming to Atlanta in 2019). Drop off your email to get MultiverseCon updates & subscribe to future reviews and news. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter!