This review contains spoilers.
I think, for me, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a victim of its own reputation. It’s the first in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which took the SFF world by storm and surprise a few years ago and has been extensively written about by critics of all stripes (it even made it into the litfic-oriented Tournament of Books in 2015). It’s become very much a Key Text for SFF critical discourse, and as a result I was familiar with its project, its aims, long before I read it.
It’s set in the uncanny Area X: a chunk of Florida that’s been taken over by a wilderness that seems initially to be just that, untouched, pristine nature. But, as the team of four women who enter it as the novel opens discover, Area X is deeply unpredictable, even unreadable. The last expedition vanished for months, only for its members to return, inexplicably, to their homes, changed in some indefinable way and suffering from a cancer that will eventually kill them.
The novel centres on the wife of one of those returnees, who’s volunteered for an expedition in part to get some kind of understanding about what’s happened to her husband. She’s known only as “the biologist”; she and her team members have left their names behind at the border of Area X. What follows is an intensely claustrophobic first-person account of the expedition, as the team discovers a shaft plunging deep into the earth, its walls covered in apocalyptic, Biblically-inflected writing, apparently made out of living plant matter.
Annihilation’s single trick is its atmosphere of mounting dread, the ratcheting, itchy tension as the biologist races to find out who has made the shaft and why, and the truth behind the mysterious organisation that keeps sending these ill-fated missions into Area X, before her colleagues or the land itself can kill her. It has that hypnotic heaviness that characterises Gothic classics like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast; except instead of unnaturally shifting architecture, human structures made irrational and incomprehensible, it is nature made unreadable, unclassifiable that threatens our protagonist’s very self. She is a biologist: her worldview is based on understanding nature, on nature as passive and classifiable. Stripping her of her name reduces her identity to that function only, and so the refusal of Area X to make sense effectively negates her identity. We can expand this: SF as a genre is founded on the ideology of colonisation and discovery, of reducing natural environments to resources, sites for study and exploitation. So the refusal of Area X to be colonised by human characters in this way threatens our reading selves: having to see Area X as an entity with agency, with actual intentions, troubles the boundaries we create between humanity and nature, between self and other. And that troubling is key to Annihilation’s project. This is nature fighting back, reasserting itself, becoming a presence once more in a global system that threatens to destroy it. The entire process of the novel is a process of reverse colonisation: Area X, we suspect, rarely kills its victims outright, it infects them instead, creating out of them something less than human but more than animal. Something monstrous. So the biologist moves inexorably towards, exactly, the annihilation of herself, the absorption of her humanity into something vast and amorphous and terrible.
I’m not denying that Annihilation is fascinating, and beautifully written. There is tension here, and shapeless horror, and a stark, desolate elegance. But I also feel like…I didn’t need to have read it. I knew what it was doing before I read it; it did exactly what I expected it to do. This is obviously not Vandermeer’s fault. And perhaps, despite its Gothickry, this was not quite the book for me: not baggy enough, not ragged enough, too cleanly spare to draw me in fully and immerse me in its storytelling rather than observing it as a Classic. But I’ll be reading the next in the trilogy; perhaps Acceptance will broaden and complicate its project. I’d like that.