A lot of novels over the years have dealt with the subjectivity of existence. Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and its perpetual lack of resolution. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, and its exploration of the tricks memory and thought play on self-perception. Camus' The Stranger and its expression of absurdity in realist form. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and its portrayal of the disillusion of the illusion of teleological certainty. Adding his name to this who’s who list of superb talent is Jeff VanderMeer and his Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation (2014), is the first volume. Fitting snugly into the tiny niche between comprehensible and incomprehensible reality, and thus making for an uncomfortably pleasurable reading experience, Annihilation presents an extremely human story ripe for the more disparate, 21st century possibility for differing perspectives.
A nameless biologist, along with an anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist—all women—have signed up to explore the mysterious Area X along the north Florida coast. The twelfth such expedition, the group at least feels secure at the outset knowing the atrocities of the early expeditions are a thing of the past. Well prepared, they come with training, consumables, and a mandate: to pick up where previous expeditions have left off exploring, documenting and studying Area X. Coming across what the others perceive as a tower but the biologist a tunnel, the group set up camp and begin their work. Strange things happening in evening sessions with the psychologist, the group quickly fragments, however. Exacerbating matters is the discovery of bizarre wall writing and even more bizarre iridescent spores.
The biologist’s backstory, particularly the relationship with her husband who himself is a previous Area X explorer, also forms a significant portion of Annihilation. The relationship anything but one-dimensional, the biologist recounts her broken marriage even as her present day exploration informs it—a nice bit of narrative interweaving from VanderMeer, that. Forming the novel’s strongest anchor to reality, it’s nevertheless only in context with each expedition member’s experience in Area X that the relationship comes to replete color.
A psychological journey, a treatise on subjectivity, just plain Weird fiction—there are many potential viewpoints to Annihilation. One thing is for sure, however, the novel captures the sharp, hard edge of metamodern anxiety. Peter Watts explores this territory in his novel Blindsight and R. Scott Bakker in his Second Apocalypse series, but VanderMeer does so in an entirely different frame. No overt science fiction or epic fantasy, it is a character study with strong undertones of the uncanny that leans heavily on the balance of perception. The idea of knowledge as a burden—that it is not only a positive force—informs the biologist’s actions and decisions, as do the results of previous expeditions. But these facts, without any fully coherent gestalt, remain distinct points open to opinion in relation to one another. More succinctly, what the team members know hangs like a shadow as much as it shines like a light. That clear blue sky is full of tiny particles, some waiting to build up in your system and cause cancer. Not only a smooth, clean surface, it is also home to a warren of microbes and bacteria. The resulting fears and anxieties derived from such knowledge—the state of human learning as we embark on the 21 st century—affect the biologist and her comrades, driving their individual psyches in different directions. Subjectivity still rampant despite advances in knowledge, VanderMeer captures this seeming paradox of contemporary Western existence wonderfully.
So while I come to the conclusion Annihilation is about the subconscious and conscious reservations and fears that impact our existence with the advance of knowledge, and perhaps ultimately the choice we have whether or not to accept the realities we perceive, are taught, or read about, there is certainly room for other viewpoints. This all makes for a strong Ballardian overtones. Even as VanderMeer’s style is more tranquil, the individual’s response to uncertain circumstances—the hallmark of Ballard’s early fiction—is front and center. As always with VanderMeer, there is not a word out of place, each seemingly carefully chosen to fit time, place, mood, etc., all the while the ultimate reality of the scene at hand is just a fingernail’s breadth beyond grasp (scratch?). So outwardly precise yet ambiguous within, style would seem to complement story, perfectly.
In the end, Annihilation is one of those novels whose elements and movement are deceivingly simple. Open to a variety of interesting interpretations yet not so simplistic as to insult reader intelligence, VanderMeer herds his ideas and images through a door wide enough to accommodate satisfying rumination but with a limit to the inherent possibilities. Annihilation is thus a satisfying read at both the fictional and intellectual level, which is a full-on compliment as we wade through the crap—ahem, floodwaters—of the second part of the Golden Age of fiction. This would have been my novel of the year for 2014 had I read it then…