Sunday, August 03, 2014


Can someone explain Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation to me?  I mean, I kind of get where it's going, but I don't understand why I'd want to go there.  And people love it so much!

The sci-fi premise is that, suddenly and inexplicably, a big chunk of the southeastern US got turned into primordial jungle.  It's full of strange, exotic, and giant plants and animals, and has weird psychological effects on people who go in.  Expeditions have been sent; the people come out strange, or not at all.  Our narrator is the biologist on the twelfth expedition.

I love this premise, but I expected something quite different.  I expected more of a mystery, I guess, an exploration.  I expected layers of revelation, about the environment, about the secrets, about the characters, maybe?  It's a strange, intriguing premise.

I made it halfway through.  As far as I can tell, the story doesn't really go anywhere exploratory.  There are a couple of key questions I'd like answered, but I think the dreaminess of things lost me.  It's like, things didn't shock me, because nothing made any sense--the strange and inexplicable is not unraveled.  There's no revealing anything, since we start out with "this place runs people mad, and everything there is impossible," and when we get there everyone starts to run mad and there are lots of impossible things.  This deprived me of wonder, and without wonder, there wasn't much there.

The problem with a big "how did this happen?" question is that you eventually have to either answer it or admit that you're not going to.  I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure this book was committed to not answering the questions; the Southern Reach (I think it's called) just is, and we'll get to explore it, but not explain it--not in this book, at least.

Not that this leaves the book with nothing--enjoyable stories are often built on something besides discovering the source of the weirdness.  But this also isn't terribly character-driven, not exactly.  The narrator (she is the biologist; the characters are all unnamed and referred to by their jobs--the surveyor, the psychologist) is a sharp, unlikeable person, and the fact that she's likely going a little bit crazy doesn't help much.  The others are no-nonsense, and the fact that you have four competent, businesslike women on an exploratory mission should be pretty interesting, except that they all get suspicious of each other right away, without actually getting access to any real perceptions about anyone.  Even our narrator is mostly scheming and fretting.  It's like watching the movie Aliens from the point of view of that guy who shouts, "That's it, man! Game over, man!"

If someone who read this would like to tell me more about it--about what, besides the admittedly lush, detailed, interesting descriptions makes this book great, or about how the ending (or the next book) make it all worthwhile--I would be really interested.  Is it the character study of the chilly, obsessed narrator?  I could see that, though it didn't catch me.  Is it about uncovering the mystery of the territory, and is there more to that than, "yeah, this is crazy, isn't it?"  Is there some level on which it's about mankind's search for understanding in an ultimately unknowable universe?  I'm taking theories--hey, even if you haven't read it, I'd love to hear yours.

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