So far my exposure to Jeff VanderMeer has primarily been in his role as an anthologist, specifically curating mind-blowing collections of stories found lurking in the darker alleyways of weird fiction. What a joy then to discover that he is actually a wonderful author in his own right. Annihilation is the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, all to be released this year. I’ve just started on book two, Authority, and simply cannot wait for the arrival of Acceptance. What’s the big deal? Well…
The Southern Reach of the title is a government agency dedicated to discovering the truth behind Area X, a bizarre phenomenon located on a deserted stretch of America’s coastline. Some years ago a hazy border appeared out of the blue, surrounding an apparently arbitrary area. The border has unique qualities to say the least. Nobody knows how it got there or who created it. No modern technology will work once you cross it. Communication with the outside world is impossible. If you enter at any point other than the designated doorway you will never be seen again. If you enter through the door you may return but you are unlikely to be the same person who went in.
Annihilation follows the 12th Expedition into Area X. Comprised of four females, the team members do not share personal information with each other to the extent that they refer to themselves by job title rather than name. Thus we have the biologist, anthropologist, surveyor and psychologist, with the story unfolding from the biologist’s point of view. Barely armed and equipped only with basic research equipment and an unreliable map, their purpose is to find out as much as they can about what is happening within, and hopefully to come back alive. Given that the biologist’s husband died of an unknown cancer contracted during his stint in the 11th Expedition she is understandably on edge.
As they venture deeper into Area X the team make more and more strange discoveries. An abandoned village adds to the sense of creeping unease and when they stumble upon a tunnel leading down into the earth their group cohesion (aided by the psychologists armoury of pre-implanted hypnotic suggestions) is stretched to the limit. What they find within defies both explanation and sanity and finally fractures the group, leaving them to figure out what they’re doing there, what the next move and how, if at all, they can get out.
Annihilation is a thoroughly gripping book from the outset. Told from the pages of the biologist’s field journal it denies the reader any background information, limiting our knowledge to what she herself experiences. This lends a claustrophobic and unsettling edge to an already tense situation. Throughout the story there’s an overarching feeling of helplessness, as if events within Area X simply carry trespassers in their wake, denying them any real freedoms and channeling them towards their inevitable end.
There are some rather obvious influences at play in Annihilation, from modern masters of alienation such as JG Ballard to the obvious creeping, nameless horror of HP Lovecraft. Jeff VanderMeer has obviously soaked up a lot of the works he’s been filing away in his anthologies. However this doesn’t stop Annihilation from being an utterly unique read, on which will keep you on your toes (and probably with all the lights on) until the closing pages. And even then you’ll be desperate for more.
I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s well-written, original, engrossing and thoroughly strange in the best way imaginable. Go buy it and Authority right now and join me in waiting for the release of Acceptance in September.
(Oh, and a little plug for some Taiwan-based friends here. If you like your weirdness and need a good podcast to listen to, go check out The Society Of Arozea.)