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.
–Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
As we edge closer to the 2015 Tournament of Books, I’ll review a few of those contenders which I haven’t yet talked about. One of them is Jeff VanderMeer‘s mind-bending and fearless Annhilation, the first in the Southern Reach trilogy. For those who dislike a story that ends with possibility, this book isn’t for you. Annhilation will leave you sprinting to the bookstore, desperate for the follow-up Authority and then the conclusion Acceptance. Better to buy all three at once–you’ll thank me later.
The Southern Reach of the trilogy’s title studies Area X, a natural landscape possessed, lost from humanity to unknown. Annihilation opens as the twelfth expedition begins their journey into this now foreign and predatory landscape.
There are many reasons this book shouldn’t be popular–names are so important in our stories, we change them to protect the innocent and give out fake ones to characters like candy. We rarely remove them entirely. In Annihilation, we lose names right away–there is an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, a biologist. Things like names, things like modern weapons and tools, all these things are left behind before entering Area X. Each woman, as this expedition is all women, has a measuring device clipped to her belt. A black square with a clear hole in the middle. If that clear hole glows red, the women need to get to safety. What sort of danger the device is measuring, what sort of safety they need to seek–no one is sure.
Previous expeditions haven’t gone well. Those who made it home did so mysteriously, and weren’t quite themselves upon their return. Eventually, those who return from Area X sicken with cancer. No one understands why.
Despite all this, these four scientists are investigating this wild landscape, discovering buildings marked on their maps and buildings unmarked. Discovering things comprehensible and things not.
For what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
Let’s hope Victor LaValle votes Annihilation through the first round of the Tournament of Books, even though it is standing alone apart from its trilogy. This book leaves readers adrift in an astounding landscape, with a nameless narrator analyzing what might be the most awesome description of an ‘other’ in modern science fiction.