Written by: Jeff Vandermeer
Book #1/3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy
Rating: 1/5 stars
Summary: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
“You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come or concentrate on what’s left to you.”
Review: This is a book meant for deep thinking and analysis, and I was prepared for such considering the book is only 200 pages long and it’s written by Jeff Vandermeer, who is known for not simply writing anything. However, I’m not really sure, at the end, what I’m supposed to be deep thinking about despite how disappointing the book was. Maybe it’s supposed to be a comment on the state of humanity? Or highlighting the power of environment? Or both? Or neither? There’s a difference between writing a profound and deep book, and writing something that’s barely understandable when its hidden beneath too much subtext and misdirecting detail. I believe Annihilation is an example of the latter.
That being said, Vandermeer is an amazing writer when it comes to describing the scene. After reading the initial summary for Annihilation, imagining this Amazonian rainforest of a scene, I was elated to read on the back flap that Vandermeer grew up in the Fiji Islands, which I feel gives him a better grasp of how to depict Area X… and I was right. Area X, especially through the eyes of the biologist, the main character, is practically drawn out on the pages before the reader. The idea of Area X and the Southern Reach sounds amazing and incredibly interesting… but when it comes to the characters and the actual plot itself, Vandermeer goes rogue in the worst way. The book starts off at the beginning of the expedition, which made a little antsy; I like some build-up, some background before the big event. Almost the entire first half of the book was slow and predictable – Area X is creepy, there’s scary and undefinable monsters, and people are sketchy. Okay. Nothing new. Around page 75, around the time when the biologist starts to give animals and inanimate names but not her own traveling partners, is when I started to get intrigued. A lot of more mysteries are introduced, but none are delved into or solved by the end of the book. It’s yet another book that suffers from too many plot lines and too little time and focus on each. When it finally did get to the great “climax”, it fell SO spectacularly short I actually re-read over the scene to make sure I didn’t miss some little thing. It was one of the worst “climaxes” I have ever read.
Normally, where I have a solid and lengthy two paragraphs on characters, there is little to write here. The only character Vandermeer ever goes into describing beyond using their title for a quotation is the biologist, whose passion for knowledge was admirable, but whose general personality, constantly oscillating feelings for her husband, and unwillingness to connect to other humans around her just made her come off as boring and arrogant for no good reason. Her three traveling partners are all shown as having only one personality trait, each of which is something unwanted: the psychologist is probably psychotic, or at the very least immensely controlling to the point of sketchy; the surveyor is incredibly distrustful; and the anthropologist is amazingly naive. Out of all of them, I think I liked the surveyor the best; she seems to be the only one who wasn’t crazy, but I digress. As for the Crawler, the antagonist of the book, Vandermeer did an amazing job building it up… but then it came to NOTHING. So incredibly frustrating.
Even though it is the first book of the series and it’s all supposed to be a mystery/psychological thriller, there wasn’t even anything tying me to the plot line. Am I curious as to what The Crawler is? Yes. Am I curious as to why Area X seems to have different effects on each expedition? Yes. But this book does little to none in explaining that, and its aggravating that pretty much the entire book could have been surmised in ten pages. The most I can say about this book is that I hope the rest of the series gives me answers or even entertainment, because this book gave me zilch of each.