Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Published 2014 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
200pp. 9780374104092. $13
Science Fiction, Thriller
Available in print, eBook, and audiobook
Why I Read It
Annihilation was both a recommendation and a library find. The third book in the Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first, came across the desk one morning at the library. I read the back cover, thought it looked interesting, and discovered I needed to read the first book. I may have forgotten about it, but for my co-worker, who has read the entire trilogy and told me that it was worth a read. Coming in at just under 200 pages of story and starring four female scientists, I couldn’t not read it.
Area X has claimed eleven exploratory expeditions. Will it claim the twelfth?
Area X used to be land adjacent to a military base where experiments were performed. Now, it is reclaimed land, abandoned by humans, and home to strange organisms and plants. For decades, the Southern Reach has fielded expeditions into Area X to explore and bring back knowledge of the new landscape, flora, fauna, etc. Before the beginning of Annihilation, eleven such expeditions had been sent into Area X. Few returned. None survived. Annihilation finds readers at the beginning of the twelfth expedition, made entirely of female scientists, a psychologist (the leader), a surveyor (the military expert), an anthropologist, and a biologist (the narrator). They, like the expeditions before them, must map, catalogue, and gain insight into Area X for the Southern Reach. Confronted with a structure not found on any previous map, subject to hypnosis and psychological suggestions by the psychologist and the Southern Reach, the twelfth expedition must grapple with Area X and its influence on their minds and bodies. Four went into Area X. One survives, but none return.
Here’s what I think
Strange, imaginative, and creepy are just a few words to describe Annihilation. There are others, but those are the first three that popped into my mind. Annihilation is written as a journal without dates and without names. The Southern Reach has determined that things like names and dates can be manipulated by Area X. In what ways, it is unclear as we only know what our narrator, the biologist, knows, which is not nearly enough. I was left with more questions than answers, which is good as this is book one in a trilogy.
On a story level, I was left confused, creeped out, and intrigued. I want to know more about Area X. I want to know more about the Southern Reach. I want to know more about the structure/tunnel/Tower that is really a living organism, and the Crawler that lives inside of it. At points, I wanted to put the book down and walk away for a bit, because I was so scared about what was happening. At times, this book made my skin crawl. At no point, though, did I not want to go on. I had to know what happened next. The pacing is done well, measured and suspenseful, not always on-the-edge-of-your-seat intense, but never glassy-eyed-boredom.
On a writing style level, I found the journal style worked well. The book is in first person, but from a biologist’s point of view. She is very aware that she is writing for an audience and, therefore, must attempt to be objective in her observations. There are moments where she takes her audience down memory lane, but that is an author choice to give more flesh and weight to the character of the biologist, for us to understand her better. The climactic scene in which the biologist meets the Crawler is done so well that even I cannot fully imagine what the Crawler looks. Even now, I keep trying to picture it.
I thought it would be a quick read, with only 195 pages of story, but it took me about four days to finish. It has great descriptions of Area X, not unsurprising when the narrator is biologist. Annihilation is a fresh take on the “exploring new worlds” science fiction trope.
Highly original, this sci-fi thriller had me creeped out and sucked in. It stretched the limits of my imagination. This one is a definite keeper. Put it on the list of go-to recommendations for sci-fi lovers.
5Q–Hard to imagine it being better written.
4P–Broad general or genre appeal.
Readalikes, courtesy of NoveList Plus
Mark Z. Danielewski
Cell, Stephen King
Ancestor, Scott Sigler
Starfish, Peter Watts
Menacing, Suspenseful, Cerebral
Book talk ideas
A pristine and varied landscape. p. 3
A structure not present on maps left by previous expeditions. pp. 4-5
Hypnosis and psychological suggestions. pp. 10, 27
Confused, charging boar. pp 16-17
Bioluminescent words made of living organisms. pp. 22-25
The deserted town; moss/lichen structures. pp 96-97
The Psychologist’s arm. P. 133
The moaner in the reeds pp. 141-142
Book discussion questions
1. What did the Crawler look like to you?
2. The biologist tells us parts of her upbringing and life before entering Area X. Do you think these experiences influenced her receptiveness to Area X and its mysteries?
3. If you could have written the story differently, what would you change and why.
4. What did you see when you imagined Area X? The psychologist’s injured arm? The anthropologist’s corpse?
5. The psychologist tells us the significance of the word “annihilation” as being used to induce suicide. Why do you suppose the Southern Reach thought this would be necessary?
Clues to the Future
Creepy sci-fi novel, Area X, female biologist, Southern Reach, Jeff VanderMeer, The Crawler, moaning creature in the reeds, hypnosis, the lighthouse
Awards and Lists
2014-Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014
2014-School Library Journal’s Adult Books 4 Teens
Links to the Author, Interviews, and Reviews
Author’s website: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/
BuzzFeed Interview: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lincolnmichel/jeff-vandermeer#.wqarBlnAm
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast: http://geeksguideshow.com/2014/02/05/ggg103-jeff-vandermeer/
Kirkus Southern Reach Interview: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/interview-jeff-vandermeer-author-southern-reach-tr/
Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-374-10409-2
Kirkus Reviews Starred Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jeff-vandermeer/annihilation/
New York Times Shortlist: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/books/review/annihilation-by-jeff-vandermeer-and-more.html