Annihilation: Discussed by Bill, Kat, and Terry

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer fantasy book reviewsAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

So yeah. That was strange. You should read it.
Here endeth the review.

 Uh…. Seriously? Try again, please, Bill.

What? It’s Kat, our managing editor, sticking her bold red italic text into my review! Oh, alright. Start over:

Loren Eiseley, Charlotte Perking Gilman, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka have a literary baby. And it’s adoooorable!

C’mon, Bill….

A biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist walk into a bio zone. And the creepy bartender says . . .

Bill. This is getting annoying. Am I going to have to get out the electric cattle prod? It seems like sometimes that’s the only way to keep you in line.

Wait, don’t you want to at least hear the punchline? Fine.

That’s cute and all, but we run a quality review site here. I know everyone trusts your opinion, but if we just start writing reviews like that, we’ll soon lose our audience. I read Annihilation, too, and so did Terry. We agree with your rating, but there’s a lot to say about Annihilation. Shall I ask Terry to write this review, instead?

No, fine, though if she wants to join in, I’d love to discuss it with both of you.

That sounds like a great idea. Terry? Are you available?

Not only am I here, but I agree with Bill’s initial review — “That was strange. You should read it.” I admit it’s somewhat lacking in detail, though.

Bill, why don’t you first give us a brief introduction to the book?

OK. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, an all-women expedition of four is tasked by a secret organization — the Southern Reach — to explore a mysterious region known as Area X, which has been abandoned/cut off from civilization for decades. They are the twelfth such expedition, the last one occurring two years earlier, and it’s made clear very early that those earlier ones had some tragic and/or horrific endings. Not long after arriving, they discover a mysterious underground structure (a “tunnel” to everyone save the biologist, who insists on calling it a “tower”) that, unlike the lighthouse and the abandoned village, is not on their map. The biologist’s recording of subsequent events is interspersed with flashbacks to her early professional life and to her marriage. And really, even though all that comes out in just the first few pages, this is all I want to mention about the plot, Kat, because much of the pleasure — and it really is a pleasure — is the slow reveal of all that ensues, not merely the plot points but the slow reveal of character as well. And equally, or perhaps even more pleasurable, is what is not revealed. Or maybe more precisely, what is not explained. Suffice to say, this is not a novel for those who like clear-cut answers. Or even, you know, just answers, clear or no (though it is possible, this being the first in a trilogy, that some of the mystery will be made more clear by the end of the entire story).

Nice job, Bill. I knew you could do it.

I loved the slow reveal, too. I thought it gave the story a surprising amount of tension. However, I think this technique won’t be appreciated by all readers. VanderMeer’s protagonist, the biologist (which is what she calls herself — we never learn her name), is cold and aloof and is occasionally revealing important facts that she neglected to mention earlier. It seems like she doesn’t quite know herself and she’s hard to warm up to. I liked this about her, but I imagine that many readers won’t feel the same way.

I found none of the characters likeable, including the biologist, who is the first person narrator of the book. Of course, we’re seeing the others through the biologist’s eyes, and she seems to be a harsh judge of character, as well as somewhat cut off from her own feelings. It makes the book hard to read at times, as there is no one to root for. But I found myself caring about the narrator despite myself, even though she is the prototypical unreliable narrator.

You’re right. Annihilation is not a novel for those who do not care much for unreliable narrators for the reasons you two mention and also because the biologist is constantly calling into question not only her own conclusions/speculations, but even her own observations. If she can’t trust her eyes, how are we the readers supposed to? Or whatever theories she comes up with based on whatever it is her eyes see?

Now, like you, Kat and Terry, I happen to be a fan, generally, of unreliable narrators. So I’m already predisposed to like what VanderMeer does here with this character. But beyond that, and unlike Terry, I just really liked this character herself. If one ignores the whole can’t-trust-what-she-sees part, she has a startlingly sharp vision. This is true when she is looking at the world around her, whether that world is the transitional and partially alien landscape of Area X or the more “mundane” worlds of her youthful backyard, or an empty lot near her house, which are allegedly “comprehensible” to us but have their own inexplicable nature, are themselves part of the fantastical (and as old stories tell us, fantasy is not always benign). And so Annihilation is filled with lots of nature imagery, all of which VanderMeer, who is clearly a sharp observer himself, conveys in vividly precise fashion. Beyond the natural world, though, the biologist also has a clarity of vision with regard to herself, say in terms of her love of solitude, or with regard to her relationship with her husband, that is hard not to like and respond to.

I agree. I was also fascinated by the way she saw the world — both the commonplace world she came from and the new world she’s visiting. VanderMeer made me want to step outside and explore the rain puddles on my street. I love how she talks about ecosystems — not just as we learned about ecosystems in biology classes, but she sees human interactions the same way. Even a pub is an ecosytem to the biologist.

You mentioned that she has a clarity of vision about herself and I said above that I think she doesn’t quite know herself. That’s an interesting contradiction. I think she is clear and confident about some aspects of her personality (e.g., her logical empirical mind) but is uncomfortable with other parts of herself (e.g., her social skills, her relationships, her soul).

As the story goes on, she is forced to examine herself in much the same way she examines other ecosystems. As her experiences in Area X get weirder and weirder, there’s a sense that she’s just on the edge of madness.

Indeed, I found the novel fitting not only into the category of fiction known as “The Weird” (a subgenre with which VanderMeer has a good deal of familiarity, as evidenced by his editing (with his wife, Ann VanderMeer) of The New Weird and The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories), but even a hint of the Cthulhu Mythos, in which to behold the monster gods is to become insane.

Yes, there is a wonderful sense of dread and suspense, of horror, that builds and builds throughout the novel. It’s that great kind of creepiness that feels so good even as you feel the shadow stretching out over you inch by inch and you know you should run like hell. That kind of hurts-but-feels-good pain of picking at a scab.

Between the high level of weirdness that I don’t want to say anything much about, the engaging nature of the narrator and the steadily increasing level of suspense, the book is truly compelling. Not quite in the page-turning fashion of a good mystery or action novel (and then what happens? And then what?) but in the way you just can’t help but look at that flash of movement in the darkness you saw in the corner of your eye, you can’t help but go down that hall, then around that corner. Maybe “fascinating” is a better word than “compelling.”

Well, I found it both fascinating AND compelling. I listened to the audiobook version which is narrated by Carolyn McCormick (who also narrated THE HUNGER GAMES). McCormick is wonderful in this role. She sounds like a matter-of-fact introverted scientist who finds herself slightly bewildered to realize she really cares about her relationship with her husband at a time when it might be too late to salvage that relationship. Since I’m also a matter-of-fact introverted scientist who was surprised when I fell in love with my husband, I was completely caught up in her tale. In some ways Annihilation is a beautifully sad love story. The audiobook is 6 hours long and I listened to it straight through.

Hmm. I disagree with both of you on the “compelling” descriptor. I found it surprisingly easy to put down, and had to struggle with myself to pick it up again, despite believing that it is an excellent book. Perhaps it was the sense of dread that the book engendered in me — a dread that I think VanderMeer was aiming for. This isn’t the same as a fear that the book would not end well, or that terrible things would happen to the characters, but a sense that we’re looking at things Not Meant For The Eyes Of Humans, if you know what I mean. So while there was never a time when I wanted to give up on the book, I felt as if I had to gird my emotional loins to read it, get my guard up, and above all, not allow myself to be swallowed up into that world.

I also was captivated by the questions raised in Annihilation, such as how we view nature, what is our place in this world, how do we respond when we encounter the ineffable? Questions of agency, of influence, of what lies beneath the surface, of how or even if one can remain “alone” in a world that constantly presses upon us and also impresses upon us the requirement to share, to interact, to “connect.” And other ones as well.

Yes, these unanswered questions are part of the “dread” of which I speak. The questions mount as the book goes on, and the answers never really appear — or at least, not obviously.

I haven’t read much VanderMeer. How do you think Annihilation compares to his other work?

Craft-wise, I think this is one of VanderMeer’s best novels (and I say that as a fan). The pacing is spot on, the prose shifts gears as needed but generally has a great sense of spare rhythm to it, and shifts between flashback and present time are handled smoothly — he seems to know exactly when to interrupt and when not to, as well as when to return. Finally, it’s exactly as long as it should be and no longer.

But the whole is larger than the parts here — yes, I like this book for its craft elements — the prose, the characterization, the tone — and yes, I like it because it tells a compelling story about a likable engaging character. But at the core of Annihilation is something ungraspable, and so it’s also nicely appropriate that I can’t quite nail down exactly what it is I love about this book (as opposed to being able to say what I like about it). But boy, did I love it.

Despite being the first in a trilogy, the book ends in such a fashion that I’d be quite happy if this were it. That’s not to say I don’t care what comes next, but despite, or perhaps because of, the enigmatic nature of the climax and the many mysteries left hanging, it’s pretty near a perfect ending in my mind. And pretty much a perfect read. Highly recommended.

It’ll be on my list of the best books of the year, I think. I’m really looking forward to the other two books in this trilogy.

Agreed. I don’t need a sequel, but I’m sure glad there is one. Authority will be released on May 6, 2014. The SOUTHERN REACH trilogy will conclude with Acceptance on September 2, 2014.


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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

8 comments

  1. Annihilation is not a novel for those who do not care much for unreliable narrators

    As much as I hate to say it, based on that statement alone I’m glad I got declined for the ARC on this one. The concept sounded great, but unreliable narrators are a literary trick for which I have no appetite.

    • A lot of people feel that way about unreliable narrators.
      I have no idea why I find them so appealing. I guess it makes the story weirder, and I like weird.

      • Though I don’t usually like them in novels I think they work really well for this sort of novel as it adds to the sense of weridness if that makes sense.

  2. What I’m taking away from this review is that the three of you thought it was strange, and we should read it.

  3. I appreciate unreliable narrators, and I like what I’ve read of VanderMeer so far, so I will probably go find this one.

  4. Unreliable narrators have to be done well. My favorite example is a movie, not a book, SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN IT — — it’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

  5. I love the format of this review! It was indirectly informative! Please do it more often!

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