A psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor walk into a bar…
Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Seriously, here’s the real review.
Names are unnecessary in Area X; a place where four women of varying professions and backgrounds go to research and map the terrain. They are part of the twelfth expedition. Narrated by the biologist—a loner whose husband was part of the eleventh expedition—the story takes us deep into a once human-occupied area now reclaimed by nature. It is uncertain what happened in this place. With a psychologist specializing in hypnosis, an anthropologist too kind for her own good, a skeptical ex-military surveyor, and a biologist with unending curiosity, Area X quickly becomes a place of real danger that threatens to annihilate them all.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is a horror story, an environmental disaster story, a science-fiction story, and so much more. Hinting at a subtle dystopia back in the realm beyond Area X, the first book of The Southern Reach Trilogy is a book about madness, beauty, and nature’s wrath. There is so much in this one book and yet the reader has to decide, along with the biologist, if the answers to questions are worth the risk.
Hear me out. I expected to like this book when I read the summary. After I began the book, I expected to hate it. When I finished it, I realized I loved it. It was challenging—in a good way. It was difficult—in a good way. It wasn’t at all what I expected—in a good way.
This novel could stand alone. With an unreliable narrator, hypnotic suggestion, and the effects of the “natural” world around them, the story had many “unknowns” that the reader had to accept, which made the ending acceptable too. At times, the outside influences on the biologist, mixed with her own fear and curiosity, made Area X unreliable as well. There were so many fantastic experiences it felt as if the narrator was on drugs or some far off planet.
But the narrator wasn’t spouting gibberish. She explained the world the best she could through her perspective—which is to say, with scientific observation. While this method of recounting events was in-character, it was maddening at times when her descriptions of the world were too vague. Descriptive words like “large” or “long” told me nothing. I was left to guess, which threw me out of the character’s perspective and frustrated me.
That being said, the story and Area X was intriguing. Don’t expect to figure everything out—but I’d argue that’s part of the appeal of the story. Instead, read the story with an open mind. Think about what’s happening but don’t let too many biases cloud your vision. Acknowledge the danger, but don’t flee from it. Instead, read boldly onward and go where many others have gone before, but few have come back alive.
Jeff VanderMeer has been a finalist and the recipient of numerous awards. He is the author of Shriek: An Afterword, City of Saints & Madmen, The Southern Reach Trilogy and others. His work has appeared in different anthologies including Best American Fantasy.