It almost sounds like a punchline set-up. A psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist walk into a . . . what exactly? In this case, not a bar, but something far more dangerous and intoxicating. The place is called Area X, a wildlife forbidden zone of sorts, cut off from civilization, once sparsely inhabited by humans, overtaken by nature, and where things skulk in the shadows. The all-female group, unnamed except only by their professions I've listed above, are the twelfth expedition that have crossed the border. The opaque bureaucracy, The Southern Reach, has deployed eleven previous expeditions meeting with less than successful results, some violent, some unexplained, but all overtaken by Area X. According to the biologist who narrates, “Our mission was simple: to continue the government's investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp.” (4)
Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation reminds us that we do indeed live on an planet that is more alien than we tend to recognize. But in addition to nature containing it's own secrets, there are other mysteries in Area X: the abandoned lighthouse, the underground “tower” with writing scrawled on the walls, along with the the sounds at night, which the biologist describes as,
... the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)
This desolation is very palatable in the prose, and comes in many forms throughout, relentlessly taking its toll on the group. After just the first few pages, you know this will probably not end well.
The story is essentially a survivor's diary, struggling with two worlds: the natural world of fungi, forests, and fauna, and the preternatural entities that have colonized it. The biologist's restrained voice serves as a contrast to the lush chaos of Area X, as she attempts to place order on nature through her lab samples and record of witness.
But this is not only a exploration story, but also unexpectedly a story about marriage. The biologist’s husband signed up for the previous expedition, and though some version of him did make it back home, he was soon picked up by The Southern Reach and she hasn't heard from him since. Her narration is interspersed with memories of her husband and her reticence to share certain things about herself to him. Going to Area X is partly for her to find out what happened to him, but also to find something they could share with each other, that having the same experience somehow will bring them closer even though they may never reunite.
To borrow a music term, I would describe Annihilation as a sort of chamber horror, a quartet of unease. It embodies a perfect balance between setting, character, tone, and plot, with a sense of dread that infiltrates your mood immediately. The writing hits all the right notes, sentences building to hypnotic effect, slowly taking you under it's spell. As part of a planned trilogy, this story is self contained, but leave plenty of questions for future volumes to unearth. In listening to an interview the Jeff, the next volume, Authority, appears to be a converse of the first novel: instead of another expedition into Area X, it is an “expedition” into The Southern Reach, where corridors and offices replace the marshes and forests, bringing to mind a different sort of desolation. As the characters navigate these opposing territories I look forward to the weird footpaths Vandermeer will take us.