annihilation book cover

Self-Annihilation — Science Fiction Book Review of ‘Annihilation’

Annihilation By Jeff Vandermeer 208 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

annihilation book coverby Michael Schupska

Why do humans seem to self-destruct even in the most optimal of situations? The great job, the perfect marriage, the ideal life: all are susceptible to the whims of the human propensity for uncertainty and doubt. Although psychologists have long pondered and attempted to solve this riddle of the human condition, Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer explores the theme within the setting of a semi-dystopic, albeit not particularly futuristic, science fiction setting.

The story centers around a biologist. In fact, we never come to learn her name, nor the names of the other three women who are tasked with exploring the mysterious Area X. Area X is the name given to an area that has been closed and quarantined for an unspecified amount of time, for unspecified and mysterious reasons. The details of what has actually happened inside the quarantine zone are baffling and enigmatic; these details are also kept conspicuously secret by the shadowy government organization known as The Southern Reach.

The biologist enters Area X with three other women: a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. She decides to voluntarily enter Area X for a very specific reason: her husband returned from the area in the months prior to this expedition. This has proven to be a rare event. In the previous eleven expeditions, no person has ever returned from the zone. When the biologist’s husband returns from Area X, he is not the same person as he was when he entered. He quickly succumbs to a particularly malicious strain of cancer. In an act of loyalty and personal self-destruction, the biologist determines that her only course of action is to head straight into the place where she lost her husband.

The expedition is led by the psychologist. She utilizes hypnosis to allow the other members of the expedition to pass the border of Area X safely. It is never explicitly stated why hypnosis is necessary to cross over, but the implications feel ominous. The interactions between each of the four women is a crucial aspect of Annihilation. The implications of having one character that is seemingly more powerful and has more information on the phenomena they encounter is an interesting way to structure character dynamic. One of the first unexplainable phenomena that the team encounters is poetic prose being written along the walls of the tower. The letters of this writing appear to be alive: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…” ( Vandermeer 23). This unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness writing found on the walls continues spiraling down toward the seemingly limitless depths of the tower. The writing on the walls of the tower reflects the general themes of the story in general and is a wonderful change of pace in style to keep things fresh.

Vandermeer weaves an intricate and obtuse, but surprisingly accessible science fiction story about self-destruction and curiosity. The story is told from a female perspective in an all-female crew—something incredibly unique for the genre, and severely lacking. The mysteries of Area X come to life on the page, and some of them remain an intriguing secret. There are two sequels to Annihilation, but they are so different that they hardly rank as required reading once finished with the first. Have no fear. Although some things are left ambiguous at the end, it in no way feels like sequel baiting. Most of the questions are answered, but enough are left vague or unanswered to provoke thought for long after reading. Annihilation is beautiful, engrossing, and is highly praised for good reason; it is a shining beacon of an example of modern, unique, and original science fiction. The movie adaptation is also highly recommended; Vandermeer himself helped work on the project.

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