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September 4, 2014

Review – Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Reading Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Annihilation’ (first volume in the The Southern Reach trilogy from FSG Originals) reminded me of the experience of watching the first season of Lost, when the sense that something terrifying was just out of sight and the atmosphere of uncanny threat was almost smothering at times. There are some other surface similarities – both have a group of anonymous strangers working together in a mysteriously threatening wilderness. At a little under two hundred pages, though, ‘Annihilation’ makes its point at a much snappier pace.

The novel documents the exploits of the 12th expedition into a hostile wilderness known as Area X. The narrator is the unnamed biologist of a four-woman team (the others, equally anonymous, are a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist) dispatched by a government agency called the Southern Reach. Nobody knows exactly what happened to the previous expeditions, though it’s apparent that it’s bad. It’s also apparent that the members of the team have been very selectively briefed about what they can expect; it’s not long before the gaps in their knowledge lead to bad decisions and inevitably to tragedy. It’s like Lovecraft without the hysterical xenophobia.

It’s short, but I found ‘Annihilation’ an absolutely riveting read. It’s a dramatic and oddly intimate perspective on a brush with unknowable, indifferent and overwhelming alienness, bolstered with healthy chunks of conspiracy, treachery and personal tragedy. Vandermeer is lavish in his descriptions, particularly of a landscape which clearly exists in the real word (though hopefully not in every respect) and his use of language is rich and loving throughout. I adored this book, and I cannot wait to read the second book in the sequel, which will apparently deal with bureaucratic nightmares.

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