Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #364: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Cosmic horror can come from anything. Humanity's place in the larger cosmos is so contingent, so uneasy, that the slightest change could doom us all. Every serious SF reader knows that bone-deep: the universe is indifferent to all kinds of life, and life is often hostile to other life.

Jeff Vandermeer, though, is the only one I know who would think to apply those principles to a wildlife refuge near his home. What if that land was alien somehow, I imagine he thought. What if something happened to make it different, to make it hostile? What could happen next? What could emerge?

Annihilation is the story of that land, a fictional version of the St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge or a fictional space inspired by it. In this first book of Vandermeer's "Southern Reach trilogy," it's Area X: a region cut off from the rest of the world for three decades.

Well, that's the story the twelfth expedition into Area X knows. It could be wrong. Maybe they've been lied to. A secretive government organization, given all power over a bizarre and frightening outside-context problem inside the US, isn't necessarily going to be telling the whole truth now, are they?

There are four women who make up that expedition; one other backed out just before they left. For reasons sufficient to the Southern Reach, they are known only by their roles: the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, the psychologist. The psychologist is their leader, as much as anyone is. The biologist is our narrator. We're reading the journals she kept during that trip: all expeditions are required to have all members write down their experiences as they go. (Vandermeer doesn't play up the "and only I am escaped to tell the tale" aspect -- the biologist is too focused on her duties and with understanding the strangeness around her -- but the format locks in those comparisons to Poe and Lovecraft.)

Annihilation is set entirely in Area X. It opens with the expedition already on-site, having passed through whatever barrier or frontier exists under some kind of hypnosis. They're not sure how they got there, and they know that there's a very good chance they won't come back. The second expedition killed themselves; the third killed each other; the eleventh reappeared mysteriously outside Area X simultaneously and died of cancer within weeks. Those are the ones we know about specifically: it seems unlikely that all of the others made it back unscathed.

Area X is full of strangeness, and that strangeness quickly infects the expedition. The strange things are biological, or seem to be, and the biologist struggles to even describe what she is experiencing. That's cosmic horror, too: that sense of existential wrongness, of things broken so badly they can't be understood and can barely be described in rough sketches.

This is a creepy, disquieting book, full of horrors both psychological and external -- horrors that are both psychological and external simultaneously, horrors that are horrible because they are both. The biologist is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for, but that's not much. Vandermeer's career-long interest in fungi and other strange growths pays off in Annihilation: he had been writing about creepy things much like this for years, and here transmuted those obsessions and concerns into a slim, taut novel that delivers perfectly on its promise.

There are two more in the trilogy: I'll need to find them. (There's also a movie; I'm vastly less likely to spend any time on it.)

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