Jeff VanderMeer's new novel Annihilation lures you in with a seriously intriguing mystery, then leaves you filled with incredible, delicious dread. It's the tale of an ill-fated scientific expedition to piece of coastline that has developed strange new physical properties that defy explanation. And it will make you believe in the power of science mysteries again.
If J.J. Abrams-style by-the-numbers stories of shadowy organizations and science magic have let you down one too many times, then Annihilation will be more like a revelation. VanderMeer peels back the skin of the everyday, and gives you a glimpse of a world where science really is stretching the bounds of our knowledge — sometimes to the point where we can't ever be the same.
The book is written as a journal of survey notes from an unnamed biologist who joins an expedition to Area X, a coastal region in what sounds the southeastern United States. But we are never sure whether the United States even exists in this world. Maybe we're in some alternate version of the Earth, or some near-future world where national boundaries have changed. All we ever see is the pristine wilderness that the biologist and her colleagues have been asked to explore by an organization called the Southern Reach.
VanderMeer brings the lush ecosystems of the area to life, hinting at terrifying invisible animals in the reeds, and showing us oddly human-eyed dolphins that frolic in the canals that reach like fingers from the sea into the marshes. It's a land of transitional ecosystems, the biologist explains, as the expedition moves from pines to marshes to tropical beaches and back again. By "transitional," she partly means that the region is full of radically different ecosystems that overlap. But she also means that all of Area X is transitioning from one kind of environment into another as the strange properties of an unknown alien influence take hold.
This idea becomes particularly alarming when the expedition happens upon a geological/biological feature that some of them call "the tunnel" and the biologist calls "the tower." It's a seemingly endless, stone-lined hole dug into the earth, populated by a single a spiral staircase winding down into oblivion. Though they have maps of the area from previous expeditions, this inverted tower is on none of them. "The map had been the first form of misdirection, because what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?" the biologist comments. This is one of many sly asides in the novel that hint at VanderMeer's larger preoccupation, which is that the information-making methods of the Southern Reach will always be at odds with the wild truths about Area X.
The expedition quickly discovers that the walls of the tower are covered in writing formed out of glowing fungi, and crawling with tiny creatures. Fans of VanderMeer's previous work, like Finch and City of Saints and Madmen, will recognize his ongoing obsession with fungus here. The writing forms sentences that barely make sense, but which seem connected to an ongoing story or perhaps a sermon about a "strangling fruit" and "the seeds of the dead." Who has planted the seeds of these words? And what exactly is the tower?
As we travel deeper into this bizarre region, we learn more about the biologist and discover that previous expeditions to Area X all ended in the weird deaths of their members. Few people venture to the area other than specialized expeditions, however, because it is such a harrowing experience to cross its borders — plus, the Southern Reach has spread a rumor that it's an environmentally damaged region, a sort of toxic site.
It's in these brief flashes to the real world outside Area X that we begin to see a powerful subtext welling up about what ecosystems really are, and the role humans play in them. It would be easy to argue that VanderMeer's transitional ecosystems are partly a reference to climate change, a phenomenon that is creating a number of such ecosystems across the world right now. But what's going on here is a lot more complicated than that.
In the best tradition of weird fiction, VanderMeer is evoking the sense of awe and terror that nature brings out in us — not because we are changing the environment, but because it is changing us. We are part of its slimy, fungal, salty, dirty ecosystems. If we shit in it, we become shit ourselves. And as the biologist's expedition falls apart, we watch as each member is transformed, their bodies and identities revealed to be no more special than any other part of the changing ecosystem.
This becomes particularly poignant when you consider that language itself is part of this mysterious set of transitional ecosystems. When the biologist happens upon a moldering pile of old expedition journals, like the one she is writing, she observes, "Slowly the history of exploring Area X could be said to be turning into Area X." Even written words, the ultimate signs of humanity, are just another part of nature's endless cycle of rot and renewal.
There's more than a hint of Roadside Picnic here, the Strugatsky Brothers' magnificent novel of alien technologies and human bureaucracy. But Annihilation's mysteries also have the feel of pulp fiction, whether that's H.P. Lovecraft or something from an episode of Lost. Action-packed and mind-bending, this is a novel that will leave you pondering, but not because the mystery remains unsolved. Instead, it's because the mysteries of Area X raise all kinds of questions about what passes for "normal" in our own lives, from the bizarre ways we try to draw boundaries across ecosystems, to the kinds of broken organizations we task with making new discoveries about the world.
Annhiliation is the first of three novels in the Southern Reach trilogy, all of which will be published this year. It's a completely self-contained story, but it's also clearly an introduction to a much broader mystery that VanderMeer will be exploring in sequels Authority and Acceptance. You won't want to miss them.
You can read the first chapter of Annihilation here.