I read Annihilation at, quite possibly, one of the worst times – I was 2,000 miles away from home and 45 miles from the nearest town; if I didn’t know better, I could’ve easily mistaken my surroundings for Area X. Jeff VanderMeer’s first installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy draws you in with mystery and a deep sense of confusion and leaves you terrified, no less confused, and craving more. Annihilation is a refreshing read at a time when the sci-fi market is oversaturated with autonomous computers and futuristic dystopias. VanderMeer disregards technology and robots and focuses on the primitive and primeval instead. Nature has reclaimed Area X and destroyed all forms of the civilization in doing so. VanderMeer’s work is terrifying because he uses something we believe that we can control to shatter that very reality.
VanderMeer drops you into the middle of Area X on the first page. Southern Reach, a government agency with just as many mysteries as Area X, cordoned off Area X for decades. Nobody is permitted to enter Area X other than the expeditions sent in by the Southern Reach to research it. Each expedition, however, failed. Members of these expeditions either killed each other, disappeared, or died of accelerated cancer shortly after returning. We join the Twelfth Expedition, the first one in two years, through the Biologist’s writings in her journal.
VanderMeer throws you into the center of Area X with the same amount of knowledge of the members of the Twelfth Expedition – none. Aside from the maps of the First expedition and sparse videos and field notes of others, the Twelfth Expedition doesn’t know much, if anything, about Area X. The Biologist’s field notes only add an ever increasing sense of terror to this confusion, too. VanderMeer plants us in front of a hole, a topographical anomaly, dug into the earth with a staircase plummetting into the dark. Everybody except the Biologist calls the topographical anomaly a tunnel; the Biologist, however, insists it’s a tower. The tower’s purpose, origin, and destination are unknown; even more mysterious is the inflammatory sermon-like writing formed out of bioluminescent fungi which cover the walls.
The Biologist tries to explain the Area X’s “transitional ecosystem” as the Twelfth Expedition ventures through Area X’s pristine wilderness. This transitional ecosystem is evinced by Area X’s high degree of biological diversity and intermingling of traditional ecosystems. Nature’s heightened impact on the human race in Area X tends to this transitional ecosystem too, only on a terrifying level. A dolphin with a human eye, the rapid decay of everything manmade, and the tower’s inscriptions make you question our relationship with the natural world. Annihilation is terrifying because it reduces humanity to a participant in the natural world instead of it ruler. VanderMeer creates a sense of helplessness; no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from the natural world, we can’t. We’re as much of a participant in the natural order as anything else – we influence nature but nature controls us.
While reading Annihilation I neither wanted to put the book down nor turn the page. I feared what my surroundings may transform into if I put the book down but also expected the next page to be written by the sermon-writing fungi. VanderMeer masterfully increases the tempo of Annihilation to instill a sense of dread in its readers. I couldn’t read fast enough and feared that if I slowed down the environment around me would engulf me as it transformed into Area X.
What originally confuses you at the beginning of Annihilation leaves you with a sense of dread at the end. Questions are left unanswered, but what you learn about Area X incites terror up until the last page. What created Area X? Why does the Southern Reach keep such a close eye on it? Where did the inhabitants of Area X go? Thankfully, Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Authority and Acceptance, the second and third books, add even more mystery and terror as these questions are answered.