Books tend to come in threes now, certainly genre fiction. Annihilation is the first in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series but two facts point to why this should be a trilogy: all three parts are mercifully being released this year, taking away any waiting time, and Annihilation needs more. My reading rule is the more compact the better, but I can honestly say that this is the first book I’ve read where I’ve wanted the writer to dig deeper and bring up more.
We follow a research group of four entering the mysterious Area X: a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. None of them are known by their names, they know next to nothing about their teammates’ backgrounds. This is a rule given by the Southern Reach, the overseeing, possibly governmental, secret agency, in the effort to shed all attachments and emotional responses to what might happen. In fact, it leads the characters to trust their group members very little. A fifth member, a linguist, falls out at the last minute. We are told that eleven groups have gone before them. The group are hypnotised in order to cross the border into Area X; when they reach their base camp, they remember nothing of how they got there. So far so sinister. But only a few pages and one day into the expedition and the first team member goes missing. They all have to keep a journal of their findings and experiences, and this is what we have been given, the biologist’s account. In holding the book, we are holding the biologist’s journal. The relative anonymity within the group suits the biologist well. She writes down some of her memories from outside, from before the expedition, and in it we learn she has never been good at connecting with other people.
Inexplicable things happen. A tunnel, that the biologist thinks of as a tower even though it goes underground, seems to be pulsing when everyone else sees stone walls. And one continuous sentence follows this wall down into the depths of the tower, written in what appears to be glowing, living organisms. The hypnotism used on them to cross into Area X is discovered to go deeper too. It becomes apparent that Southern Reach knows more about Area X than they have let on. But just how much more? As the discoveries get more shocking and weird, the biologist opens up and writes down her own true reasons for being in Area X.
The writing has a rhythm and style that lulls you into the story and you’re knee deep in the strangenesses before you realise. I liked that, as things fall apart, the narrator became more emotional, making me invest more the further into the book I went. This may be a shallow claim to make but I believe it makes all the difference; the UK hardback cover design of white spores on shiny charcoal looks very effective. The main acclaim to the book comes in VanderMeer’s ability to bring Area X to life, with its features both identifiable in the real world and yet sinisterly something other. The way the ‘miniature forest,’ of the writing on the wall, ‘swayed, almost imperceptibly, like sea grass in a gentle ocean current’, made me want Hayao Miyazaki to come early out of retirement to translate this into film.