Lost Meets Lovecraft in the American South
VanderMeer, Jeff. Annhihilation [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014]
I'm not exactly well-versed in the New Weird. Sure, I've read a bit of Mieville and the stray short story here and there, but my experience with weird fiction mostly starts and ends with Lovecraft. Who better, then, to turn to than Jeff VanderMeer--highly-regarded writer and co-editor, with wife Ann, of the definitive New Weird collection?
Annihilation is the story of an scientific expedition to "Area X," a space located somewhere in the American South, where an unexplained event has occurred, causing the Southern Reach--an administrative unit of unclear origins--to wall it off from the rest of the US. The book takes the form of a journal kept by a member of the expedition--a biologist, who has been sent to investigate Area X alongside a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. This is the twelfth such expedition; all the others ended in disaster, or with the mysterious reappearance of participants on the other side of the border.
As this is a journal, the narrator does not feel the need to give the reader much background, but we do get snippets of information here and there. All four participants in the expedition are female, and we learn that at least one previous expedition was all-male. The biologist's husband was a member of the eleventh expedition. No one is allowed to enter Area X with anything other than antiquated equipment.
The team discovers a tunnel, which the biologist insists is a submerged tower; it is not on their maps. They investigate, and discover odd writings--in English--that are apparently made up of organic matter. Shit gets really weird. But what is going on? What, moreover, do the other team members know? Do they all have the same mission, or are there hidden agenda?
That's about as good a description as I can manage, because this compact novel is, for lack of a better term, extremely weird. It is also dense, challenging and very well written. Though VanderMeer has tried to distance himself from Lovecraft, the book does exude a Lovecraftian attraction to the grotesque, while the biologist's voice does recall Randolph Carter. The main difference, I think, is that Lovecraft's protagonists find the strangeness they encounter terrifying; VanderMeer's biologist, by contrast, finds it fascinating. Or, put another way, where they are repelled, she is attracted.
Annihilation also reminded me of Lost--and specifically, the Dharma Initiative storyline as it was presented in the second season. We are given a space where conventional assumptions are challenged, and a scientific mission to map out and understand the underlying mechanisms that account for it; and we are shown how that environment complicates and problematizes the scientific endeavor. Area X traces a straight line, in this respect, to the Zone in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's masterpiece Roadside Picnic.
The book ends without much resolution, while the nature of Area X remains largely mysterious. I'm not sure how much is explained in the sequel, Authority, and to be frank, I'm also not sure how much I want to be explained. Annihilation is appealingly murky. If you're up for a seriously crazy freakout, this is the book for you.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: none awarded.
Penalties: none awarded.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."
POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
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