Date finished: February 25th 2017
The reason I fell in love with speculative fiction is that it urged me to think of possibilities, worlds and universes beyond those that were possibly within my narrow frame of comprehension. Isaac Asimov begged me to ponder the future of the human race beyond our own planet, Philip K Dick made me question the amorphousness of the reality around me; Wyndham yearned to show me how alien and threatening the Earth could be. Sci-fi and its derivatives don’t have to be space battles and laser beams, they can be presciently grounded in our current reality. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that.
Annihilation thrusts us into the strange world of Area X, a mysterious environmental disaster zone which successive expeditions have tried and failed to understand. The first expedition committed mass suicide, the second murdered one another, the eleventh died of a cancer epidemic. Southern Reach, the mysterious government agency investigating Area X, is sending its twelfth expedition in to explore: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist and a surveyor.
It’s hard to reveal much more about Annihilation because it’s such a hauntingly strange story. In a way, the book never reveals too much about itself, always remaining tantalisingly secretive; answering one question only for the answer to raise a dozen more. One thing’s for certain: this isn’t a novel for people who like to know where they stand.
A creeping sense of intrigue suffuses this first in a trilogy of novels about Area X; a Lovecraftian sense of the incomprehensible versus the scientific need to know. We follow the biologist as she and her colleagues encounter the impossible and begin to fall apart in the face of it.
Though the dialogue is somewhat stilted and it can be unsubtle at times, VanderMeer has created something extraordinary and original in Annihilation. You could be forgiven for thinking that speculative fiction couldn’t possibly have anything new to say, but writers like VanderMeer and China Mieville will always prove this train of thought to be fallacious.
Annihilation is testament to the ongoing value of the commentary of speculative fiction. There’s always something new to say and, in this case, it pertains to our environmental situation, and the fine line we walk between being caretakers and victims. VanderMeer is a practitioner of a century-old art form: that of warning against the hubris of humanity; we are not owners, we are renters. The Earth reserves the right to kick us out as and when we prove to have outstayed our welcome.
How long have we got?