As I sat through trailer after trailer waiting for the movie to start, one in particular gave me pause. “Hold on. Is this a movie with an entire team of scientists who happen to be ladies?” I quietly asked my seatmate. I’ll admit I’d never heard of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation before that, but the trailer for the movie adaptation had me intrigued.
When I got home I checked to see if a local library had a copy of the book. I wanted to know more about this story. Apparently I wasn’t alone in that sentiment because I found myself 20th in line for a physical copy. A quick calculation told me I wouldn’t get the book that way until after the movie came out. Luckily the e-book wait list moved faster and I soon found myself diving in.
The following review is spoiler-free.
Annihilation is a first-person sci-fi mystery thriller told via journal. A team of five unnamed women set out to explore a place known as Area X. It’s cut off from the rest of civilization and let’s just say things haven’t turned out well for members of the 11 expeditions that went in before them.
It’s a story that creates much urgency as it unravels even as the narrator – known as the biologist – works to take everything in as methodically and calmly as possible. She’s not particularly likable or empathetic and that’s ok.
She also barely interacts with others giving the relationships in the novel a very clinical feel. It’s hard to tell how much of it is the foreboding atmosphere and historical danger of the place having an effect on everyone and how much may be the trope of women being against each other instead of supportive. Despite those limits most of the other characters seem much more vivid and present than the biologist does. Then again, everything she recounts is after the fact and filtered through her lens – leaving you questioning how unreliable of a narrator she might be.
As I ran from page to page, a need developed to read as fast as I could while still catching all the details. The narrator drops info that for all intents and purposes are spoilers and then you have to wait for the story to catch up, for the context to appear, and for the weight of the information to fully register to even have a chance of really understanding.
It’s bold storytelling and I was riveted waiting for a moment where absolutely any of the mystery would be more clear. Eventually it got to a place where her descriptions became more difficult to wrap my head around. I kept asking myself: the fact that there’s a journal of all this has to mean something, right? It has to imply something for the outcome, doesn’t it? The changing ecosystems and the discovered misdirection has to be for a reason.
So disappointment reigned when I realized the mystery wasn’t driving the plot onwards; the mystery was the plot. VanderMeer leads you down a path you’re so sure will reach some sort of solid conclusion, but ultimately everything is kept pretty darn vague. Does that mean it’s more open to personal interpretation? It may be too nebulous for even that.
I had forgotten Annihilation is the first book of a trilogy. Sometimes authors take advantage of that to not really have an ending to a story but a pause. This was such a situation.
All that left me with very mixed feelings about what I’d read. There was intrigue and specialists and secrecy like another trilogy starter I enjoyed, Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants. Both deal with people struggling to comprehend something that might be alien. But Annihilation lacked all the endearing qualities of that other book. Annihilation’s main character doesn’t grow or come to see life all that differently than she always had. What she does figure out about her relationship with her husband seems to have little effect. And the more I thought about one unconcluded plot element, the more I realized it didn’t make sense at all.
Perhaps it’d make more sense after completing the trilogy, but I’m not sure I want to continue on. Yet I’m still curious how it’ll be adapted into a movie. It seemed from the trailer that there would be some changes. And hopefully when I see Alex Garland’s version, I won’t say the same thing as when I finished the book – interesting, atmospheric, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Annihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy can be found wherever books are sold.
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