Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


9780374104092

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


I purchased my own copy of Annihilation and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 3.30.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a smorgasbord of environmentally conscious sci-fi and family saga literary fiction on offer. Heavy stuff–but they all look like they’ll have a rewarding payoff. Ready? Let’s dive in!


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780374104092the plot: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist enter a contaminated zone known as Area X that has distorted everything around it, creating astonishing and beautiful natural phenomena. It also threatens all of human civilization. The four women must strive to survive themselves and each other while seeking to uncover Area X’s secrets.

why I’m excited: I saw the movie adaptation of Annihilation in theaters a few weeks ago and was entranced by its combined sense of breathless wonder and creeping dread. As I understand it, the movie is a rather loose adaptation of the book–the first novel in VanderMeer’s creepy eco-thriller Southern Reach trilogy–but I’m excited to immerse myself regardless.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780735214439the plot: Two Korean sisters struggle under Japanese occupation on the idyllic Jeju Island. In 1943, one sister, Hana, one of the famed haenyeo divers, is captured and forced to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army during World War II. In 2011, the other sister, Emi, embarks on a journey to find her.

why I’m excited: I think many Americans either don’t know or forget about Japanese colonization and occupation, especially the horrible (and still-fresh) wounds it enacted on Korea. Mary Lynn Bracht is part of the Korean diaspora–she’s an American of Korean descent who lives in London–and I’m looking forward to reading her take on a neglected part of history that continues to have devastating consequences.

Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

cover_9781609453824_1120_240the plot: The bloody death of Clara, daughter of one of southern Italy’s preeminent families, is officially ruled a suicide–but her brother can’t let go. The novel plumbs the depths of moral decay and unscrupulous wealth in modern Italy, and is pitched as a thriller that’s a cross between Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The novel is translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

why I’m excited: This one is the biggest risk on my list this week. I love literary thrillers, I love weird family sagas, and I’m always looking to read more books in translation, but I don’t know much about this book or its author, so I’m still a little cautious. Here’s hoping that I love it!

The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781481497299the plot: A city corrupted by overuse of magic is crumbling and under the rule of a vicious tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor; in the face of environmental ruin and overwhelming decadence, the city’s citizens fight back. This book is made up of four interlinked stories about the city and the uprising.

why I’m excited: Allegory much? This book couldn’t be more timely, and I’m sure that’s intentional. Paolo Bacigalupi is incredibly skilled at turning  today’s nightmares into a horrifying (but strangely hopeful) vision of tomorrow. I’m less familiar with Buckell’s work, but I can’t wait to dive into this magical dystopian tale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!