Friday, April 30, 2021

"Annihilation" by Jeff VanderMeer--Fiction Review

In today’s review, we’re visiting Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” which is one of my absolute favorite examples of modern-day weird fiction/cosmic horror.

Jeff VanderMeer

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

The first thing I want to talk about—that I love about this book—is the fact that none of the characters have names in the traditional sense. Everyone is just identified by their role on the team during the expedition, and our protagonist is the Biologist. It really adds to the whole weirdness of the story.

As cosmic horror, “Annihilation” is a high-water mark of the subgenre. I’ve heard VanderMeer called the weird-Thoreau before, and I can tell you it’s deserved high praise. More than anything, “Annihilation” is an atmospheric book to such a finely honed degree that I found myself getting lost in VanderMeer’s lush descriptions of Area X.

There is a pervasive feeling of dislocation throughout the narrative of this book that mocks any form of human intent or investigation. Area X is determinedly unknowable in every sense of the word. It’s a kind of horror that is constant pressure, unlike the jump scare sort, which is all short, intense bursts. Everything—every element of this story—serves that feeling from the human characters not having names but titles, to the bizarre environment of Area X, and how the characters investigating it even got there, or why.

What I don’t love about this book:

“Annihilation” is a short book, and typically, I enjoy a good short book—I’m addicted to hearing, “Audible hopes you’ve enjoyed this program,”—but in this case, it leaves me wanting more, a little more time in Area X. This is what makes the next book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” so frustrating for me because it takes place just outside of Area X. The third book scratches that same itch as the first one but there feels like something missing from the whole formula so, it’s only nearly as good. This is more a critique of the series as a whole, but if “Annihilation” had a bit more to it, I don’t think I would be left wanting more.

Half of the expedition team isn’t as fleshed out as the other half. VanderMeer spends all this time creating subtle character development and hints of back story for the Biologist and the Psychologist that the character work for the Surveyor and the Anthropologist suffers noticeably. It isn’t clear why they’re there in the first place. As for the Biologist, or Ghost Bird, as her husband calls her, she’s there, you discover, because she’s an odd bird—sorry, it had to be done. 

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We start “Annihilation” with four women, the Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor, and the Anthropologist. Beyond their titles, we’re never told their names. Everything starts shortly after they enter the mysterious Area X, a coastal location that has been quarantined and studied for the last thirty years. This is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The Biologist, our protagonist, is the wife of one of the members of the eleventh expedition. That expedition was thought lost, but mysteriously, members of the eleventh expedition returned home with no memory of how they got out of Area X. They all soon died of terminal cancer, including the Biologist’s husband.

Immediately, it’s evident that all of the animal and plant life within Area X are—off—and everything is a bit weird. They spend an uncomfortable first night at base camp within Area X, and soon the next day, they find a tunnel, which the Biologist calls a tower. Upon entering the tunnel or tower, their trip downward is made more accessible because, and improbable if this were a natural forming structure, there are spiral stairs. On the tower walls are the written words, “Where lies the strangling fruit…” but the words aren’t drawn on the walls. They appear to be a plant or fungus growing on the walls of the tower in precisely the shape of words. In any case, the Biologist gets too close and accidentally breathes in spores. She decides to keep that detail to herself at the moment.

Outside of the tower, the Psychologist says something, which immediately triggers a hypnotic suggestion in the Surveyor and Anthropologist that makes them more compliant. It doesn’t work on the Biologist, and the Biologist speculates that her immunity is an effect of the spores. She decides to keep this a secret too. They return to base camp and hear some creature moaning awfully in the woods around camp.

The following day when the Biologist and the Surveyor wake up, they find that the Anthropologist is missing. The Psychologist insists that she just went back to the border to be extracted and just wasn’t up to the strain of their mission. They return to the tower, and the Biologist and the Surveyor journey deeper into it this time, while the Psychologist waits outside to stand guard. Inside they find the Anthropologist’s body, who apparently came into contact with the writer of the words on the tower walls, and it killed her. Escaping back outside of the tower, they find that the Psychologist is long gone.

The Biologist and the Surveyor disagree on what to do next, so they end up splitting up. The Surveyor stays at base camp, and the Biologist heads further into Area X toward a lighthouse previous expeditions have visited. At the battered lighthouse—which gives the impression that terrible violence happened there— the Biologist learns several things. First, she discovers hundreds and hundreds of filled-out expedition field journals, much like her own, where she is recording her experiences. Quickly, it becomes apparent to her that there have been many—many more expeditions into Area X than just the twelve she was aware of, and the Biologist also finds her husband’s journal. In his journal, she discovers he never got out of Area X, and the doppelganger that came back to her wasn’t him.

The Biologist finds the Psychologist at the base of the lighthouse, mortally wounded, but still, when the Psychologist sees the Biologist, she tries to kill her with a hypnotic suggestion meant to cause her to commit suicide. It doesn’t work. The Psychologist tells the Biologist that she is glowing shortly before succumbing to her wounds. Later, after being chased by the moaning beast, the Biologist tries to return to base camp only to have the Surveyor try to kill her. The Biologist ends up shooting her.

Alone, with the rest of the team dead, the Biologist returns to the tower. She is nearly killed by the crawler who wrote the words and discovers he used to be the lighthouse keeper. The Biologist—Ghost Bird—eventually decides to forgo trying to escape Area X. Instead, she decides to follow after her husband as outlined in his journal.


What I love about cosmic horror, and this novel excels at, is a sense of dislocation and vast unknowableness to the story’s atmosphere. Atmosphere—is something that H.P. Lovecraft would go on and on about in his stories when he was writing weird fiction, and it’s a quality overlooked, in my opinion, in a lot of modern horror stories.

The really compelling thing about this story to me is that while the total effect of Area X when all of its elements are summed up, is that it’s an unknowable hostile environment—but—the Biologist is still capable of understanding little bits. However, every piece of knowledge she gains never increases her sense of understanding her environment. When she discovers human cells in some of the plants and animals she samples, she’s baffled at how that might be true. Also, when she finds the mountain of field journals from uncountable expeditions not officially recognized as one of the twelve she knows about, she doesn’t know what to think about them. Supposedly, Area X has only been there for thirty years, and it doesn’t seem like there would be enough time for all of these groups to have entered and recorded journals. Plus, why are they all heaped together in the lighthouse in no particular order?

What I’m getting at is the genius of “Annihilation” is how it uses your own imagination against you by suggesting but never confirming or denying much. It’s akin to the concept of—show as little of the monster as possible to the audience and let their imaginations fill in the gaps. VanderMeer creates a whole world that, while simultaneously feeling shockingly real and tangible, is also impossible and ephemeral. It’s those paradoxical conflicting ideas that make it so uncomfortable yet interesting.

Parting thoughts:

So, this is another one of those books that got made into a movie with Natalie Portman. Portman, by the way, did a great job, and there were several things that I liked about the film. What I didn’t like about the movie were three significant departures from the novel.

First, the movie spends a lot of time outside of Area X and Portman’s character, who is clearly the Biologist, struggles with her guilt about a whole added cheating sub-plot that, which adds nothing to the story.

Second, they name all of the characters—and sure, calling everyone by their occupation might have been difficult for a movie, but I feel that’s only the case because they screw around too long with events outside of Area X.

Finally, the ending annoyed me. I’ve said this before, endings are my favorite part of a story, and when “Annihilation” the movie didn’t stick the landing, it left a bad taste in my mouth. We’re in the spoilers section here. So I’m going to spoil some of the movie’s plot here—so fair warning and all that. The book posits several possible explanations for Area X and confirms and denies none of them—one of the reasons I love it—the movie definitively answers the question. It was aliens, which is considered in the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” but never confirmed, and honestly, it being caused by aliens is the least interesting explanation. So when Portman’s character confronts an Alien at the end of the movie and blows it up with a white phosphorus grenade to stop Area X from spreading, I feel like the film profoundly missed the point.

I get that when the screenwriter wrote the screenplay for the film, only the first novel had come out, so he didn’t know where VanderMeer went with the story. But, the fact he clearly didn’t ask, or show any interest in reading the other two, is painfully evident. I have my problems with the later two stories, but to riff on a novel and “do his own thing” is a screenwriter behavior that never ceases to annoy me. Especially when the story concludes oppositely from what the author intended. You want to have full creative control over the film your making—cool—write your own damn original story. Otherwise, do your goddamn homework and get the broad strokes of the story right. At the very least, if you never intend to read all of the source material, ASK THE AUTHOR!

No comments:

Post a Comment