Read my First Chapter Thoughts on Annihilation here!
When I first read some of Annihilation (in the Nebula 2014 collection), I wasn’t impressed. But now that I’ve read the whole thing, in its incandescently weird glory, I’m looking back at 2016 me and whispering, you silly prat. In my defense, Annihilation starts off slowly; it’s almost deliberately stereotypical at first, invoking old 50s and 60s military sci fi. Then it starts dropping clues that things are a little stranger than you think – for example, the whole cast are women, and the book doesn’t particularly care, but the fact that the book doesn’t care that much is exciting enough on its own.
The premise of Annihilation is this: an all-women squad of scientists are sent into a strange place known as Area X, a slowly-expanding area closed to the public that has something happening to it. Several expeditions have disappeared into it; any of them that have emerged have died shortly after, whether by suicide, cancer, or other means. The team is made up of a biologist (our narrator), an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist; there was originally a linguist who disappeared at the border. The biologist narrates as they explore a tower that seems to plunge into the earth – and upon inhaling some strange spores, she realizes that the psychologist has been hypnotizing them, and that she is now immune to the hypnotic suggestions.
This is the third of Vandermeer’s novels I’ve read; Borne and Dead Astronauts are both significantly stranger than Annihilation in that they wear the fascination with Weird Biology on their sleeve. Borne has a giant flying bear destroying a city and a starfish morph… thing, and Dead Astronauts is, um, well, Dead Astronauts. (Where do you start with that book? The duck? The person made of salamanders? The time-travelling lichen lady?) In comparison, Annihilation is slow to build up to its true weirdness, but that’s also part of its strength; the biologist is discovering the weirdness, rather than the reader being plunged straight into it. Both are very different reading experiences, and Annihilation also has a very personal element to it that Borne and DA don’t quite have; perhaps because it at least pretends to be set in our world, and because of the biologist’s first person narration.
Ultimately, I think my favourite part of Annihilation is exactly that – the personal, emotional element. It’s understated, especially if you’re used to narrators with strong, vivid emotions, but that’s exactly what makes the unnamed biologist so interesting; she’s not somebody with strong emotions about other people, or who opens up easily. She’s quiet, internal, calculating, happy with her own company, and not the kind of character who usually gets to drive a story by herself or tell her own story.
I highly recommend Annihilation to fans of Vandermeer’s other work, Wilder Girls by Rory Power and/or Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber – and of course, the inverse is also true, especially if you like weird biology and plants that are trying to eat you.