Jeff Vandermeer, 2014
A mysterious Area X exists secluded from the civilized world. Inside its known borders are a lighthouse, a camp, and an unmapped tunnel that resembles an inverted tower reaching into the depths of the earth. Other than these few remote signs of human habitation the area is populated with diverse wildlife and a blend of coexisting ecosystems that would not exist alongside each other in the known natural world.
The Area X has been researched by a succession of missions occupied by hypnotized, nameless specialists from the Southern Reach, an agency as mysterious as the Area X. Eleven prior missions were met with disaster with its explorers succumbing to mutiny, murder, and even suicide. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition led by an all woman team comprising of a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist. In their training they’ve forgotten their names and have undergone hypnosis managed by the psychologist in order to remain focused on their mission within the border of Area X.
This is the basic premise of the Acclaimed and celebrated Annihilation by Jeff Vendermeer and I found it vaguely similar to a J.J. Abrams spinoff from the cliff-hanging addictive series Lost. Annihilation reads with the same level of empty promise wait-until-next-week disappointment as that frustrating series. I wanted to find something good to say about this book, but Annihilation failed to captivate or interest me. I don’t quite understand the buzz or, maybe I do, because I’m just not the type of reader that falls for these serialized cliff-hanging formulaic style books.
The book is set up in a present-form telling of the chaos in the mysterious world with moments of flash-back visions designed to provide backstory and character development, just like the Lost storyline was structured. This is basic formulaic entertainment writing. On finishing the book I found what I had read was hardly memorable. I wish that there was some beauty to the language, or something that captivated me, but there just wasn’t anything there.
The first person narrator, the biologist, was totally lifeless and uninteresting. She doesn’t ever refer to herself as anything but ‘the biologist,’ and she is so proud of this identity that for some reason she is intent on trying really hard to convince the reader over and over again that she is a biologist as she recounts all of her past work studying tide pools or her childhood interest in her backyard pool overrun by a population of frogs and lilly pads and the like. As an actual biologist she seems inept. The examples of her ineptitude are multitudinous: she inhales the spores of a fungus early in her mission, she is unable to distinguish the difference between a “thin layer of moss or lichen” (171) and she never once refers to any scientific names for any of the organisms she describes. Her inability to refer to actual scientific terms really irked me, especially when she boastfully called out this observation referencing “a tough little squid I nicknamed Saint Pugnacious, eschewing its scientific name,” (107). The constant reminder that she was biologist felt like sloppy character study on the part of Vandermeer; it is as though he read about things that biologists do without every having talked to one to find out how they actually talk or how they see the world.
The narrator also drones on and on about her tenuous relationship with nameless husband. In recalling her relationship to her husband the narrator describes herself in a self-deprecating way, revealing her lifeless personality: “I wasn’t in the habit of engaging in small talk, nor in broad talk, as I liked to call it. I didn’t care about politics except in how politics impinged on the environment. I wasn’t religious. All of my hobbies were bound up in my work”(109). She goes on and on like this throughout the book, describing her lack of personality with so little flavor or interest that the only thing she actually reveals about herself is that she is a boring narrator.
In addition to my problems with the frustrating narration style I found the plot less than exhilarating. Despite having been highly trained by a top secret agency, the four women on this mission seemed totally inept since their mission fell apart on the very first night. The psychologist’s ability to hypnotize with simple word suggestions was unbelievable and the focus on the tunnel/tower and words written on the walls by a glowing fungus failed to intrigue me. I won’t give away the plot, but I will point out that there is some sort of mysterious creature that the Biologist nicknames the Crawler. Is it alien, is it some sort of nuclear mutant, is it the reincarnated smoke-monster from Lost? I don’t really care to find out.
I’m certain that some who champion this book and the Southern Reach Trilogy will argue that I have to read Authority and Acceptance to appreciate the ‘genius’ that they see in Annihilation. I’m not interested. I’m sure that there is some major twist and purpose to the lifeless, droning of the narrator of Annihilation. Perhaps her entire memory of herself is all planted as part of her training and she is really an entirely different person from what her words depict her as. I’m not intrigued. Annihilation needed more substance to hook me along for the rest of the trilogy. If the writing had some unique beauty to it, or if I felt some empathy or compassion for the narrator, or if I believed in the words spewing out of the narrator’s mouth: maybe if it had just one of those elements I’d follow along to explore more of the mystery of Area X. Annihilation had none of those necessary elements to captivate me for more. Thankfully this was a short book and it was worth a try to explore something different on my reading shelf. I won’t say it was horrible, just not to my interests or tastes. If you’d like to read a book about a mysterious land with intrigue that is written with captivating language, I’d suggest you give The Vorrh a chance.
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