Top positive review
Engaging, thoughtful, speculative fiction—SF the way it should be written.
Reviewed in the United States on April 21, 2018
Annihilation is a near-future Science Fiction Fantasy story that is rich in mystery, deep in theme, and decidedly character-driven. It is a well-written and thoughtful story that delves deep into the protagonist’s head. We follow her evolution as the story works out to an ending that is satisfying while staying wide open to further development in the succeeding books of the trilogy. In presenting a strangely altered and devastated world, the story explores themes of change from confronting reality, our essential characters, and how secrets and distrust separate us. It is not the usual mind-candy of current SF, but art that presents mind-food in the way that is the strength of good novels.
The plot is driven by the exploration of “Area X,” which is a space of land, apparently somewhere in North America, that has been seized and altered by some unknown power. Teams sent into Area X over the years have either not returned or returned changed to the point they offer little information. A secret government agency, the Southern Reach, is responsible for the explorations and sends a twelfth expedition consisting of only women. Expedition members are required to keep journals. The protagonist’s journal is the basis of this story.
I was moved by the big theme of this story, which I perceived as a metaphor of life. To understand what life is, we must deliberately pass though the veil of our fabricated realities. We find a strange world when we do—one that will challenge our beliefs and our very sanity. Some will try to control the discovered reality and our perceptions of it, but if we keep pushing, keep exploring, we’ll find what’s real and it will change us.
The universality of this theme is emphasized by the main characters being unnamed. They are referred to by their roles in the expedition. So the protagonist is “the biologist” and the team is led by “the psychologist.” This works and does not detract from our identification with the inner life of the biologist that drives the story (I think the movie does not follow this convention). Unnamed characters is an often-done tactic for emphasizing a universal theme and I think it works here.
The idea of division created by discovering and interacting with the truth of things is another big theme. It is, in fact, the story’s driving conflict. The Southern Reach’s big problem with exploring Area X is that the exploration destroys the expeditions by changing and dividing the expedition members. We see how a controlling institution deals with that problem, in contrast with how an individual deals with it. I found that the most interesting aspect of this novel.
My biggest criticism is how Mr. Vandermeer handles the climax. He builds to it and does bring it about, but it is a very ethereal (psychedelic?) moment that lost me in trying to follow what was happening. I think the intention was to split the reader from a concrete reality but it wasn’t handled as well as the rest of the narrative. The result, for me, was a bit of a “so what?” but this is actually a small criticism. The intent is understandable enough to make its point in the rest of the story.
Annihilation does pull readers along with building conflict and mystery, but many will not like the lack of resolution for the central mysteries. That’s probably why the movie (apparently) changed the story so much. Of course, this book is part of a trilogy and it needs to retain the mystery enough to prompt readers into the next book. I’ve no problem with that, though, because the protagonist’s story is resolved (well enough) and the author’s statements are made.
There is a Lovecraftian aspect to Annihilation that I really liked. Interacting with Area X changes the characters, but it is an indifferent change from the standpoint of Area X. It supports the theme of “what is our essential character?” When reality changes us, is it a change for the better? Are we better off not seeking what’s real?
I hope you can see that this is not a space-opera, tech-worshipping, SF tale. It is deep in the sense of using fantasy, or speculation, as a tool to prompt thinking. That’s the fun of long-form storytelling when it’s done right. I think Annihilation does it right and is why I give the book my enthusiastic recommendation.