Annihilation: Reflecting on a Rare Novel

“It’s ballistic.” That’s the line that sold me. I immediately bought Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation after I finished a conversation with a fellow fiction nut. It was delivered to me a few days before I drove to the foothills of Arkansas for a short vacation.

I spent a full day lost in Vandermeer’s creepy yet compelling tale. Let me put this out there before we go any further: I don’t recommend reading this book if you’re staying alone in a cabin surrounded by 300 acres of wilderness. That was a mistake.

Annihilation grips its reader from the very first page. It grabs their collar, presses its nose into theirs, and does not blink while it talks them through a fever dream that evolves into a Lovecraftian nightmare. I know the word ‘haunting’ gets thrown around a lot in reviews, but it makes so much sense when describing Annihilation. This book won’t just haunt you, it will possess you until there are no more pages left to turn.

No synopsis in history ever did justice to its respective work, and I don’t want to spoil anything for prospective readers, but let’s give this a shot. Annihilation is an epistolary-type story that documents the expedition of four unnamed women: the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, the Psychologist, and our narrator, the Biologist. The team is charged with investigating Area X—an isolated part of the United States that remains uninhabited after an undisclosed incident occurred several years prior.

The team is led by the Psychologist, a cold, calculating managerial-type who never seems to show all her cards to the rest of the team. The militaristic Surveyor plays the role of protector/enforcer even though the other characters often appear expendable in her eyes. The Anthropologist keeps mostly to herself  but has secrets of her own. By far the most detailed character in Annihilation is the Biologist, who makes a wonderful protagonist. For me, the Biologist came off as somewhat awkward and cold through the first half of the book. However, she endeared herself to me when she revealed the childhood experience that drove her to become a biologist. Also, without giving too much away, the Biologist’s recount of a failed relationship is one of the most beautiful and painful backstories I’ve ever read. I refuse to spoil any part of it.  Vandermeer does a masterful job establishing the Biologist’s humanity before slowly stripping it away while the reader screams at the pages in vain.

Area X is a character in itself. It’s a marshland located on an unspecified coast of the United States. The only signs of civilization in Area X are a destroyed village, an abandoned lighthouse, and the base camp of the Southern Reach—the secret organization who sent the team on their expedition. As the story progresses, Area X produces mysteries that confound, anger, and frighten the four characters. The many conventional and non-conventional horrors awaiting the group in Area X are presented well. It seems like they operate as an extension of Area X itself which makes the encounters with these creatures so much creepier.

Once again, ballistic. Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a book unlike most. It takes the best elements of Lovecraft—imagination, setting, creatures, madness—and reinforces them with great dialogue as well as a likable protagonist. I have not taken the time to read any negative reviews of this book, but I still have a hard time believing any exist. Admittedly, Annihilation does present several threads that beg to be pulled yet never are. So, yes, I can understand if readers have a problem with being teased and not getting fulfillment. That being said, please keep in mind this is book one of a trilogy so whatever questions you gather will probably be answered at some point. Nonetheless, some of us don’t mind being teased…

Anyway, here’s my final opinion: do whatever you gotta do to get your hands on this book. Annihilation is worth your time. My favorite part of this experience was learning what ‘annihilation’ means in this story, looking at the cover again, and feeling a chill run down my spine.